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Why ‘East Palestine,’ ‘Toxicity’ Top Interest in US Searches, Influence

Cleanup efforts are ongoing in East Palestine, Ohio, following a Norfolk Southern train derailment in which hazardous chemicals were carried — and now the fashion world is weighing in on the controversy surrounding the disaster.

On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying vinyl chloride (a hazardous chemical used in making PVC) regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency derailed along the railway in East Palestine. Given the chemicals onboard, Norfolk Southern (with approval from the government) issued a “controlled burn” that left an ashen cloud plume lingering and residents questioning the long-term safety even after returning to their homes. 

Since then several lawsuits have been filed against the railroad amounting to millions of dollars in damages. While train derailments are quite common to the tune of about 1,000 each year, per the Federal Railroad Administration, the spotlight on East Palestine highlights the issue of corporate responsibility and the interconnectivity of industries that rely on train, freight and otherwise.

Platforming East Palestine

A number of retailers and other companies are headquartered in Ohio, among them Kroger, P&G, and L Brands. Still, many more celebrities hail from the Midwestern state or have made comment on the tragedy.

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One Instagram call-to-action came from environmentalist (cofounder of Future Earth) and entrepreneur Stephanie Shepherd (former chief operating officer of Kardashian West Brands), who is from a neighboring town. 

In an Instagram post last Thursday, Shepherd began: “My beloved home state of Ohio, my heart is with you. About two hours from where I grew up, the town of East Palestine is suffering from a catastrophic humanitarian and ecological crisis.”

Local residents have reported headaches, rashes and the like as thousands of deaths across pets, chicken, livestock and fish were reported. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated 3,500 dead fish across about 7.5 miles of streams, with known contaminants being tracked through the waterways. 

A Tuesday report from Google News highlighted breakout searches for “East Palestine” over the past week double that of searches for Akron-native LeBron James (though NBA All-Star weekend just took place). To that, “chemical accident” and “toxicity” are currently being searched more than ever in the U.S., mirroring the growing trends of toxic fashion (most recently period underwear).

Shepherd asked followers to sign an Action Network petition link in her bio. The petition calls for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and President Biden to declare a national emergency and take over the cleanup efforts.

In its Tuesday order, the EPA made it clear that Norfolk Southern will pay for these efforts.

Unpacking the ‘Stockholder Strategy’

At the press conference, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro called Norfolk Southern’s response a “failed management of this crisis,” claiming the firm “made it harder” for responders by providing inaccurate data and “[choosing] not to participate” in remediation. 

In a past statement, and following a visit to the community, Norfolk Southern’s chief executive officer Alan Shaw expressed the company will be there to “help as long as needed.”

Though the National Transportation Safety Board has yet to release its formal report, Norfolk Southern employees have their insights as to how the incident occurred.  

A Norfolk Southern conductor of seven years, who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, gave his outlook. “As much attention that this story has gotten, I don’t think it will have a long-term impact on [Norfolk Southern]…”

He added that, “It’s a matter of time before there’re fatalities involved, knowing what we haul. We go through the middle of nowhere all the time but we also go through incredibly populous places [like Chicago].”

As with others, the employee alleged inadequate time and safety protocols, due to tightening corporate pressures. Precision Scheduled Railroading, or PCR, is one method adopted in 2019 by Norfolk Southern that has faced scrutiny by employees for its alleged short-sighted gains. 

“It’s not so much a railroad strategy as it is a stockholder strategy,” the employee alleged, to cut costs by lengthening trains, reducing conductors and time spent on train inspections (anywhere from 35 to 45 seconds per 50-foot train car, per his accounts). 

Echoing previous reports, “I wouldn’t say safety is a top priority from [Norfolk Southern],” he said. “We have a running joke. They put up the typical motivational posters and safety is the fourth thing on the list. We say safety is our fourth priority.”