The Problem Podcast
The Ohio Train Disaster: A Tale of Corporate Greed and Civil War-Era Brakes
A freight train derailed in Ohio and released a mushroom cloud of toxic chemicals — so why has the media buried this story? This week, we’re breaking down the shocking but predictable conditions that led to this accident, how rail companies have chosen profits over safety, and what regulatory changes should be made to avoid a mess like this again. Our guests are Julia Rock, reporter at The Lever; Matt Weaver, Ohio legislative director for BMWED-IBT and member of the Railroad Workers United ISC; and Julie Grant, managing editor and senior reporter for The Allegheny Front.
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The Ohio Train Disaster: A Tale of Corporate Greed and Civil War-Era Brakes
Ep. 226 Final Transcript
Henrik: Do you know the actual protocol for cleaning your utensils in the Civil War was stick it in the ground and pull it back out? [JON LAUGHS] That’s the technology that we’re operating at.
Alexa: OK. To be fair, I still do that.
Jon: Hey everybody. Welcome to the podcast, it’s “The Problem,” with me, Jon Stewart. Don’t forget to watch the Apple TV+ show more episodes are coming. But today we’re gonna be talking about on the podcast, this train wreck in East Palestine, in Ohio that looked apocalyptic in nature and yet got the coverage of, let’s say a squirrel riding water skis, just kind of the end of a newscast. Here’s a little something you might not know, parts of Ohio are unlivable right now. But for God’s sakes, first we’re gonna start with staff writers, Alexa Loftus and Henrik Blix, who are here because you can’t talk about Ohio rail disasters when there are a variety of craft —
Jon: — circling our planet right now that need to be shot. Where the f***? Here’s what I think. [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Henrik: Get ’em outta, get ’em outta the sky.
Alexa: Can I just say I’ve seen a UFO. I thought it was cool. I wouldn’t shoot it down.
Jon: Alexa, I’m afraid now you’ve buried the lead here. [ALEXA LAUGHS] You, I was gonna suggest that these aliens sent a care package filled with, you know, infinity water and the —
Jon: — recipe for world peace and they put it in like a little square —
Alexa: Oh, like a package.
Jon: Just throw a little package out there and the first thing we did is like, f*** that.
Henrik: They’re like, “We’ll make it a balloon so it’s not threatening.”
Jon: “We’ll make it a balloon. It won’t be threatening. Shoot it down. We’ll make it an octagon. Shoot it down.”
Alexa: And we don’t even know what’s in there. We’re just shooting missiles at it. What if there’s a baby in there?
Henrik: Remember there was a baby in a balloon?
Jon: Oh my God. You think it’s balloon boy?
Alexa: It could be.
Henrik: Maybe he’s back up there.
Jon: He’s upgraded to octagon, metal octagon boy.
Alexa: Or maybe aliens are like the greatest gift we could give the country is a newborn —
Henrik: A baby boy. [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Alexa: — from our planet.
Henrik: What if we shot down Superman?
Jon: It’s a Moses situation.
Alexa: Yes. Yes, yes.
Jon: An alien mother put the little baby in what they would consider a woven basket. But an alien tech is like a titanium, futuristic vibranium shoebox.
Henrik: And to them the Nile River is the Milky Way. They just put it in there.
Jon: You just blew my f***ing mind. [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Alexa: And what happens? No, we blast it.
Jon: We blast it. Alexa, can I just go back very quickly?
Jon: Just for a moment and I think Henrik knows where I’m going with this. [ALEXA LAUGHS] As we were talking about, you know, having a laugh or two —
Jon: — and you mentioned I’ve seen one and this ain’t it.
Alexa: I have.
Jon: What did you see?
Alexa: I was on a road trip in West Texas and there was something in the air. It was an object, Unidentified.
Alexa: And, um, yeah.
Jon: Did it have, did it have lights?
Alexa: Um, no, it was daytime and um —
Alexa: Yeah, it was, it just didn’t change shape or size for like an hour.
Jon: It just sat there?
Alexa: Even though we were driving.
Jon: It followed you?
Alexa: Seemingly, yeah.
Jon: Henrik, you wanna weigh in on this? Do we want to discern what this might have been?
Henrik: So I’m, I have two schools of thought. Number one, not at all surprised that Alexa has seen a UFO. [JON LAUGHS] Alexa’s seen a lot of fun and funky stuff. [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Henrik: I would say.
Jon: Uh-huh. Alright, so this is part and parcel of a life well lived. A life a lot of experience, a lot of different things.
Henrik: Alexa has never told a bad story in her life. Anytime we’re talking about like this weird thing happened, Alexa’s like, “My town used to be run by a mayor who was a clown.” Um —
Jon: Right. So when we talk about the train derailment, she’s like, “I derailed the train. I put my foot out.” [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Henrik: So, there’s part of me that goes, yeah, Alexa seen a UFO. The other part of me goes, um, anything in the sky that, I don’t know what it is, is a UFO.
Alexa: Right. Unidentified.
Jon: She’s got you on the logic though, Henrik. But I think the idea is not, [ALEXA LAUGHS] like if it’s something that can be easily identified by somebody else, like you might look at it and go, that’s unidentified. And then someone else would go, “Oh, that’s a pigeon,” you go “Oh.”
Henrik: Unidentified as in the eye of the beholder.
Alexa: That’s the thing.
Jon: I understand, but I think her description is, it would defy understanding and description by most people. Something that doesn’t take shape that, did it have any discernible propulsion?
Alexa: No. No. Um, just sort of I mean, I’m gonna say it veered on disc shaped.
Henrik: Yes, I love that.
Alexa: You know, not —
Jon: Now here’s, here’s unfortunately where you and I are gonna park company. [ALEXA LAUGHS] The closer that it cues to a 1950s depiction, the more I’m going to say, OK, that’s culture leading the experience rather than the experience leading you know what I’m saying.
Alexa: But that’s the thing —
Jon: Right, but that’d be like, and it landed and someone with a giant eye. [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Henrik: But it —
Alexa: But then, what was it, Jon?
Jon: Uh, here’s my guess. You’re in West Texas? It had something to do with the military. It had some, anything that happens, I always assume there is a lab underground somewhere in New Mexico or Nevada or West Texas where they’re like, “Mm how many lasers could we pack into a disco ball?” [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Jon: “Alright. Send it up.”
Henrik: Would that be a weapon? It’s just them all day in a lab like, “Is this a gun?” [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Jon: It’s them all day just putting s*** up into the air in hopefully unpopulated areas going, “Will that kill people? Let’s give it a shot.” And now the policy is, “Let’s just shoot all of it out of the sky.” But when they find it, are they gonna be like, “Oh my God, guys.”
Jon: “We’re the ones who put this up there three years ago.”
Jon: “We forgot. Frank, Frank it’s got your name on it. Oh my God, I feel like an idiot.” [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Henrik: I was reading that they’re like, we’re only finding out about these because we recently developed the technology to see them and —
Jon: What? What do you mean?
Henrik: — supposedly these could have just been up here for a while.
Jon: But we’ve had telescopes and radar and sonar and all kinds of —
Henrik: But did anyone check the sky?
Alexa: I did. [JON LAUGHS]
Jon: What? No.
Henrik: Is the problem that nobody’s looking, is what I’m saying. [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Henrik: I think in the Pentagon there was a meeting and it was like were, “We have an eye on China and we’re looking at Africa in the Middle East,” and someone was like, “Have we checked the sky?”
Jon: Look, here’s what I can imagine. We’ve been just doing this s*** on kind of auto. And then somebody after the Chinese balloon went in and said, “What’s this right here? Update available.”
Henrik: They updated to Firefox 10. [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Jon: Should I, OK and then it just said, restart your radar machine with the upgrade. And then all of a sudden they were like, “Oh my Lord, sky is filled. with fun s*** to shoot down.”
Henrik: There’s just one person who forgot to update Adobe and now they’re like, “Turns out these balloons are new.”
Alexa: “Get the missile.”
Jon: This is a video game waiting to happen. If this isn’t some rudimentary game up on Roblox tomorrow of shoot things out of the sky. Shoot things first, ask questions later.
Alexa: This is a new “Fruit Ninja.”
Jon: I heard that we shot one of them with a sidewinder missile, which is a relatively sophisticated missile.
Alexa: Is that the one we missed? Yes.
Jon: And it missed.
Alexa: I know and apparently they cost $400,000, so that’s quite a miss.
Henrik: That’s a bargain for a sidewinder missile though. [ALEXA LAUGHS] Those are good missiles.
Jon: For those guys that’s like you and I buying a sky bar. That’s nothing. [ALEXA LAUGHS] $400,000 for a sidewinder.
Henrik: I got, these stories are making me feel so stupid because, like my gut is like, how do you miss a balloon with a missile? [JON LAUGHS]
Alexa: They’re big too. They’re big.
Henrik: I don’t know anything about this and we don’t have anyone smart on TV. Our news programs are just designed to speculate about things we already know.
Jon: It’s all fear.
Henrik: Exactly. And so you’re leaving it up to me to come up with conclusions about balloons in the sky. I’m not a scientist. I’m a creative person. What I come up with is gonna be wacky and inaccurate, and that’s not a good system.
Alexa: Yeah. I think Jon, you said the correct word here. Fear. And if we weren’t afraid we could let them land.
Alexa: Open them up — [JON LAUGHS]
Henrik: Or maybe not even let them land. Maybe we send Alexa up. [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Jon: You’re absolutely right. Fear sells, but the real s*** that we should be afraid of, they’re not even mentioning on the news. Last night I turned on the news, and this is the national, this is not the local news. The national news was the first three minutes were the U-Haul that went outta control in Brooklyn, New York. Uh, but the second story was the balloons and all the UF — they didn’t mention the actual f***ing scary thing, which is the Ohio train Derailment.
Jon: And Chernobyl-esque atmosphere at all!
Jon: They didn’t mention it at all.
Alexa: And by the time they mentioned it, they’re like, “OK, it’s OK. Everybody returned to normal.” [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Jon: Right. But I wanna talk, we’ve got a great panel assembled who will be able to talk to us about this, Ohio derailment, about what’s going on on the ground in this area of Ohio. What the people are going through, what the rail industry’s responsibility for all this is. So, I’m gonna get to that now. And in the meantime you can listen to it and think a little bit more about whether that thing you saw Alexa was a UFO or your shadow. [ALEXA LAUGHS] Alright, we’ll see you in a little bit.
Interview with Julia Rock, Matt Weaver, and Julie Grant Begins
Jon: So today we are talking about this unbelievably terrible train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, which looks like Chernobyl-esque and not in the good way, you know, in the sh***y, terrible, dystopian vision way. We’re gonna be speaking with Julia Rock. She’s a journalist for The Lever. Matt Weaver, who’s the legislative director for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, Division B.M.W.E.D. and member of the Railroad Workers United ISC, and Julie Grant, managing editor and senior reporter, for the Allegheny Front. Thank you so much for joining us guys, much appreciated. First I want to go very quickly, Julia, if you will, can you just give us a brief rundown of what the hell happened here that looks like a mushroom cloud floating over a small city in Ohio?
Julia: Well, so in some sense, the story starts 10 days ago, or 11 days ago now when an 150 car train derailed and it was carrying hazardous chemicals, which when the train derailed, there was sort of a fiery scene, and then the chemicals had to be released from the rail cars so that the rail cars didn’t explode, sending shrapnel all around the town. So there was sort of, first the fiery derailment and then this plume of black smoke as the chemicals were released.
Jon: The train derailed, from what I understand, because the braking system was spitting sparks or something had happened where for miles it’s spitting out sparks and creating a terrible fire hazard even before the derailment.
Julia: There was a mechanical axle problem, and for at least 20 miles before this was captured on video, the train was already on fire. Um, there’s sort of a separate issue, which is that these freight trains have Civil War-era braking systems.
Julia: Which means that if you’re doing an emergency, they stop one car at a time.
Jon: Julia, it’s well known throughout American history that nobody had brakes like the Civil War-era brakes. The brakes of the Civil War-era are renowned throughout history. Why upgrade them? That would be ridiculous. Julie, you have been on the ground in East Palestine. You’re from the area. Tell us a little bit about some of the things that you’re seeing what are the people in this town experiencing and what kind of help are they getting?
Julie: I was there a day or two after it happened.
Julie: And at that point, like people were just confused and didn’t know what was going on. They were still letting people walk around town. Most people were at like community center. They had opened up the high school and the middle school, like a Red Cross shelter —
Jon: This is after the burnoff. This is after they had put all these chemicals into a trench and lit it on fire?
Julie: This was right after the initial explosion. OK.
Jon: Yeah, yeah.
Julie: You know, so people were staying in the high school. They were out of their homes, and then after they did the venting of the chemicals that you’re talking about, people were evacuated and it was late last Wednesday that they were told they could return.
Jon: Why were they told that they could return Julie? Because I’ve had some experience in areas that are giant burn pits. Uh, so can you explain to me why after five days, they said to everybody, all clear?
Julie: Well, what the USEPA said in a press conference was we have air monitors, stationary air monitors around, we have handheld air monitors. We have so many data points. USEPA is monitoring, the company Norfolk Southern was monitoring.
Jon: Oh. Wow.
Julie: And they hadn’t found, you know, they said the air quality was as good as they would expect in any outdoor area.
Julie: Um, and so they thought, they said it was safe for people to come back.
Jon: And the evidence of the wildlife dying and the fish dying, and chickens dying and foxes swelling up, that didn’t trouble the EPA or the idea that these chemicals are incredibly powerful carcinogens and they are now in the soil and in the water.
Julie: Right. So the soil and water are one thing, the air is something else. My understanding was the chemical that they vented, vinyl chloride, dissipates quickly in the air.
Julie: The bigger problem is the soil and the water. And the latest numbers I saw from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said 3,500 fish were killed. It was seven and a half miles of stream and river water —
Julie: — um, was affected by this. A professor at University of Pittsburgh who studies vinyl chloride and human health and how it affects the liver, she kind of explained it dissipates in the air, but it’s more persistent in the soil and in the water. These, in terms of drinking water here so when you’re talking about river, you’re talking about surface water. When you’re talking about drinking water supply —
Julie: — this is groundwater, so.
Jon: It’s also an agricultural area, so it’s, now it’s in, I would assume some of the crops. But basically I guess the message to the residents there is come back and breathe, but try not to step on anything or eat or drink anything, but definitely breathe.
Julie: Yeah. It’s also, people are worried, you know, like they came back and people had soot all over their houses and their cars and things, and you know, they have to clean this up, but this, if it’s contaminated, there’s concern there.
Jon: I cannot stress this enough how this story is repeated time and time again, not just in this country, but in other countries in terms of toxic exposure and the authorities diminishing and under-stating the threat that’s going to exist for those things, and they need to be far more proactive. But Matt, I want to ask you, you’re somebody who’s worked in the rail industry for years. Uh, boy, you saw this thing coming, like I hate to use the phrase freight train, but uh, boy, this thing has been coming at us for many, many years.
Matt: Most definitely. Um, health, 15 years ago, I was part of a national labor college, hazmat derailment training, and then it was train the trainer, talked to other union people, talked to fire departments, police departments about this.
Matt: You know, we’re killing people, you know. Don’t get me wrong though, this s s*** should be on the rail or in pipelines rather than on our highways.
Matts: But, um, we can do better.
Jon: But we need safeguards. I mean, Civil War brakes?
Matt: What the hell?
Jon: And there’s no detection system about the heat building up in these cars. Why is vinyl chloride not classified as a dangerous, hazardous chemical in that way?
Matt: We need the regulators to regulate. We need our public servants to serve the public. Dammit man, we can’t have, we can’t have these industries owning politicians —
Jon: Well, let’s talk about Norfolk Southern. OK, so this is their rail system, right? They’re worth $55 billion. They are responsible for upgrading these systems and instead of putting that money into infrastructure, they’ve been doing stock buybacks.
Jon: And giving shareholder value, and they just gave, and please tell me if this is incorrect, because it seems so f***ing insulting. They offered the town of East Palestine $25,000, not per person, $25,000.
Matt: That’s what I’ve heard. That’s what I’ve heard.
Julie: I’ll just say they have some numbers that the company, Norfolk Southern has put out saying about a thousand families and businesses have been helped. $1.2 million has been distributed to families to cover costs related to the evacuation. They’ve done in-home air tests and in 400 tests and have found no reason to indicate there’s a health risk.
Jon: Just come on. Just come on. How does anybody who even witnessed a little bit of that, my guess is you can still smell it. What are the residents saying? Are they just confused or are they so beaten down by a system that’s left them behind for so many years that they’re just accepting this.
Julie: I don’t think people seem like they’re accepting it. I don’t know that they really know what to do. Um, people I’ve talked with are stressed.
Julie: They’re, um —
Jon: I can imagine.
Julie: — they’re worried, they’re trying to get back to normal in a certain way. Like they’re back at work, kids are back at school.
Jon: Have they been getting the kind of support, not just locally, but from the federal government, from the state government, you know, is it all hands on deck? Because I’ll be honest with you, I’m only following the media narrative, and Lord knows it’s not as dangerous as a balloon filled with Radio Shack components. But I haven’t seen s*** about this until like yesterday. I mean, it’s been remarkable how little coverage this has received.
Julia: So the lever where I worked at a huge story last week about how we even ended up in a situation where you have a train carrying flammable gas. You know, running through a town derailing and then exploding.
Julia: And of course, a huge part of the story is what you’ve said. These are companies that over the past decade have decided they’re going to spend their profits on, enriching shareholders through stock buybacks, especially rather than on infrastructure upgrades on their trains. But it’s also the story of how, you know, both the Obama Administration and the Trump administration. Failed to regulate the train that was running through East Palestine as a high hazard flammable train. The vinyl chloride on the train did not trigger certain safety laws retrofits on tanks that are required on other types of flammable trains.
Julia: And then even though the Obama Administration moved to require these trains to upgrade their braking systems to, you know ones that had been invented in the 90s. So still not terribly recently. Um, —
Jon: The 1990s.
Julia: —the 1990s, including Northfolk Southern lobbied to kill those regulations, got them repealed under Trump. And now, transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg has declined to revive them.
Jon: Has declined to revive fixing the brakes from the Civil War-era brakes?
Julia: These regulations. Yep.
Jon: In your mind, look, Matt, you were, I’m sure were involved in the, you know, talks about the rail strike and various things on there. This is an industry that was willing to shut itself down so as to not allow people who work in it sick days.
Matt: Absolutely. That was the big point on our part as a worker, um, who builds railroad track, bridges, and buildings. One of our biggest issues was sick days. I mean —
Matt: — the raises were good, but they didn’t keep up with inflation entirely. But we have no sick days. Um, —
Matt: — and just last week on CSX, the new CEO has negotiated with the union four unions out of the 13, we’ve got four paid sick days now that needs to go across the industry and across all crafts. The biggest part I see is this business model of precision scheduled railroading, PSR —
Matt: — that is calling for the utmost profit margin. There’s no other industry in America that has this kind of profit margin.
Jon: I was shocked when I learned the profit that Norfolk Southern was making.
Jon: I was honestly stunned. All we’ve ever heard about is we have an antiquated rail system because it doesn’t make any money and they just allow it to rot and to corrode. When I read $14 billion of profit, I was stunned. Or $12 billion in revenue, I’m sorry that’s wrong. $12 billion.
Matt: It’s shocking and that goes back to the point of these militant disciplines and in this case, I can’t speculate on the cause. We know there’s an axle or hot journal, hot box issue, but the time that it used to take a carshop, a BRC member to inspect a car used to be four or five minutes per car.
Matt: Now we’re getting down to where it’s required to get that inspection done in 60 seconds.
Jon: Because this is precision. Precision scheduled railroading says you’ve gotta inspect it in 60 seconds.
Matt: Yes. And it’s not precision, it’s not scheduled and it’s not railroading. It’s a bunch of bulls***.
Jon: Well, it’s railroading you. [LAUGHTER]
Matt: That’s right. Yeah.
Jon: That’s — I believe that may be the case. Now, Matt, this may be a hypothetical, but would inhaling vinyl chloride, be considered cause for having a sick day?
Matt: Oh hell.
Jon: Or would that just — No? You gotta, you just gotta work through that.
Matt: We went in this round of bargaining we went from essential, oh we’re essential employees. I had a paper in my lunchbox to give to the police if I got pulled over, if there was a quarantine to say, this man has to go to work to the, ticker tape saying that we’re expendable from essential to expendable. Just like that. It’s like son of a b****.
Jon: And I’m sure that’s how the people are feeling as well. Julie, tell us a little bit about this area. It’s working class. These are folks that are providing, as Matt said, the essential services this country needs to survive. What’s life like there?
Julie: I’ll tell you, I live an hour west of there, and I had never heard of East Palestine until this all happened. Um, it’s a —
Jon: Oh wow.
Julie: — it’s a small town. It, um, they do have a nice little downtown there with some, you know, places to eat and, you know, regular city services. The people I’ve met, have all you know, worked in healthcare.
Julie: I’m gonna meet tomorrow with someone who farms there. Um —
Jon: Right. Solid working class people.
Julie: Yeah. It just seemed like nice people. One of the city council members, you know, he was, this was the day or two after it happened I was talking with him I’d never met him before he has two little kids and I asked him if he was worried. The town had a very strong odor and he said, “Oh, it’s just the chemicals just running through the waterway, so that runs through town. So don’t worry, we’re not worried about it.” Um, so I think there was a lot of misinformation about what was going on at the very beginning. And I think people wanted to believe that things were gonna be OK, and I don’t think any of them ever expected to be the center of attention in this particular way.
Jon: Understood. And I imagine the plume carried around to a lot of the other areas. I mean, I can tell you just in the experience from 9/11. The EPA issued a statement probably not three days afterwards saying, all clear. And the students came back and Wall Street came back and everybody came back and cars and things were still caked with dust and those toxins, you know, and again, a slightly different environment but those toxins then found their way into, I mean, people ate there, slept there cried there, went to the bathroom there, like into everybody’s system. So, I really urged the authorities to act with caution and protectiveness for the people there, especially the children there. Julia, what, in your reporting, does this smell of a coverup to you, or does it smell of lethargy or apathy? What has caused this sort of strange delay in responsiveness from the national media and from — where’s the urgency?
Julia: Yeah, that’s a great question. Um, I think, you know, one, one point to be made is that train derailments and trains carrying crude oil and hazardous chemicals happen all the time.
Jon: Oh, oh, good. [LAUGHTER] Yeah there, so there were two more yesterday there were just, it’s just a thing. And so this was just business as usual?
Julia: So in some sense, this is just business as usual. I will say it’s, you know, it’s pretty remarkable that I don’t believe Biden has still said anything about it and I think, you know, the first message from the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, was a tweet saying, you know, he was following the situation. EPA said everything was OK. So I think it’s been pretty striking how long it has taken the administration to say anything about it. But, you know, I wonder if part of that is like, if they acknowledge that something has gone wrong here, it would require things really changing. Because, I mean, I’m sure you could speak to this, Matt, but in my experience talking to people who work on the railroads, what they have all said to me is like, one it is remarkable that this does not happen more. And two, like the thing we should be really worried about is something far more catastrophic than this happening. I mean, again, you have these trains —
Julia: — running with, you know, the workforces have been slashed by almost 30% in the past decade. The brake systems are not being upgraded. Railroads are lobbying against safety rules. Workers are exhausted, inspection times are falling and you know, there’s just crude oil and hazardous materials being shipped all across the U.S. every day.
Julie: Yeah. I just wanted to add Julia, like in this particular area. We have seen the petrochemical industry move in, so we have over 10, 15 years the fracking industry has really grown in this area. In the past year, Shell has opened a cracker plant, which is where they ship some of these materials to make the building blocks of plastics. They make those little plastic pellets. And vinyl chloride is used to make PVC another plastic item. So —
Jon: And that’s just one, that’s just one chemical. There are other chemicals within there that they’re not even bringing up.
Julie: — and my point is just like there are so many more chemicals in this area, in particular freight trains coming through. So you have more chemicals, which Julia’s talking about with fewer regulations or not, not improved regulations, and you know, of course, like, and these are going through urban areas sometimes, you know, you’re going through Cleveland, you’re going through Pittsburgh, and you know, if this happens in a major city, then you’re gonna have deaths. You’re gonna have buildings down. You know, this is gonna be even more of a major catastrophe.
Jon: Matt, have you seen diminishment of safety concerns and things? I mean, when we’re talking about slashing a workforce by 30% while increasing the danger of the chemicals and not improving any of the safety systems. What have you seen over your career in this industry and the neglect that’s, you know, causing some of this?
Matt: With the cutting of manpower and the railroads’ urge to have a one man crew. This train had three conductor and engineer and a trainee. Um, you see that especially on the maintenance wayside, the infrastructure, it’s all about deferred maintenance. We aren’t doing proactive repairs. We’re waiting till something breaks, till something derails. You know, and a good point that Julie said, you know, trains don’t go through rich people’s backyards. This is the working class concern of the worst neighborhoods in every city is where the trains go through. Um, let’s take care of the people. Dammit. You know?
Jon: Oh, listen, man, if somebody deems you essential, that means you’re about to get f***ed by the system. I mean, that’s just —
Matt: Here I am. Yeah yeah.
Jon: But I wanna read you something. They spent $191 billion dollars on stock buybacks. These are the Norfolk Southern and the seven largest freight railroad companies, $191 billion dollars on stock buybacks between 2011 and 2021, so that’s a 10 year period. And during that time, that’s the time when they slashed the workforce by 30%. And that’s the time when they lobbied the government not to have to upgrade the braking systems. So who is going to be liable for this?
Matt: It’s the people. The people, who are gonna suffer because of this, and there is no liability. I mean, the shareholders of the railroads are extremely happy to have record profits, great dividends, screaming high profit margins. You know, it’s the oligarchy. We need to focus on the lobbying efforts of the railroads and the fact that they’ve invested so much money in campaign finance and lobbying to deter, you know, we’ve got 19th century technology running on the rails.
Jon: Yeah. The bigger issue that you speak of, which is lobbyist and industry capture of a legislative process, that’s the part that you know, we can have all the sort of right wing populism that we want, but until they tell their judges that, we’re gonna be in the same boat, because they can say we wanna protect the workers, but if you don’t allow for a regulatory regime to have any teeth, industries aren’t gonna protect those workers. So it’s all a bit of a shell game, unfortunately. But I hope that it’s, I hope that it’s seen a little bit more.
Matt: No doubt.
Jon: If somebody wants to chase this down, if we get Erin Brockovich on this, you know, where does she go?
Julia: Well, so there are certainly going, there’s going to be local, you know, litigation, people suing Norfolk Southern, that’s obviously already started. Um, it, it seems like Norfolk Southern is maybe trying to get people to accept a sum of money in exchange for agreeing not to sue them, which is pretty typical. But I think there’s a you know, another point worth making that we’ve been making at the lever, which is that there’s someone in charge of regulating the transportation system. And that’s–
Jon: Julia. Let’s hear about it. Talk to me. Talk to me. [JULIA LAUGHS]
Julia: That’s Pete Buttigieg. He’s the transportation secretary.
Jon: My guy.Are you talking about Mayor Pete? Mayor Pete. Get him in there.
Julia: I’m talking about Mayor Pete. There was a, you know, huge fiasco with Southwest Airlines in December, and Pete wrote them a letter basically saying, we’re very disappointed in you. After a lot of pressure, it seems like maybe there are going to be fines issued, but now, a similar situation is happening here and he has quite a bit of power to hold railroads accountable for this type of thing.
Jon: Now, what can he do, Julia? Because that’s what, what can the Secretary of Transportation do? Because if they’ve got protection from Congress, because we’ve seen more than almost anything in recent years, the regulatory state, whether it’s be the EPA or the Department of Transportation, or the SEC, has been neutered by a Congress that is averse to any form of what they would consider a drag on a company’s profits or ability to operate. So how does like, I, and and I listen, I love a good scape goat. But how do you operate in an environment where, like you say, they pass a regulation and the lobbyists just come in and undo it? What can he do?
Julia: I mean, yeah, so it’s his job to implement the rail safety laws, his job and the Federal Railroad Administration’s job, to implement the safety laws Congress has passed and there was, you know, some robust rulemaking during the Obama era that Trump undid. So, in some sense, there’s just a lot to be built up again. Right now, the National Transportation Safety Board, this independent investigative agency is investigating the incident and will sort of make a declaration about what exactly happened. I think, like Matt said, we don’t completely know the details yet, and they will issue recommendations. They had previously recommended that vinyl chloride be regulated as one of these hazardous materials that would subject the train cars to more stringent safety rules. That’s something the transportation department could do is sort of expand the scope of these safety rules, but yeah, right now there’s this investigation happening. You know, will the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations findings be sort of accepted and will the transportation secretary take regulatory action? You know, that sort of remains to be seen, but, you know, these are regulators and their job is to oversee these industries and right now it seems like they’ve just been sitting on their hands.
Jon: Yeah. Well, there’s so much capture in those industries. You know, you find that there’s that revolving door between regulators and the lobbyists and everybody else.
Matt: You can’t trust a for-profit public business to self-regulate. It won’t happen.
Jon: Matt, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to turn off your mic for your socialistic viewpoint, and you’re gonna have to be removed. No, I’m just kidding. [MATT LAUGHS] No, it’s true. I mean, what, what you’re saying is true. You know, I remember in the financial crisis, Alan Greenspan family said, “I thought they would be better at regulating themselves,” which is to the point. But Julie, what are the people need right now other than clear cut information in the town? What can be done to maybe bring attention to what they might need to keep them safe over these next few months?
Julie: I think one of the things is watching the groundwater supply, um, making sure that if these chemicals get into the ground, you know, are traveling through the ground and making sure the water supply is safe, there’s the city is on groundwater and there are a lot of people with well water here, you know, like have their own individual well water. It’s a rural area.
Jon: Right, right.
Julie: Um, and this is how it potentially could get into people’s homes. So that’s something that Norfolk Southern says they are doing. They put out some kind of report in the past couple of days that said they would be digging or installing groundwater monitoring wells to kind of keep watch and make sure that the chemicals aren’t leaching into the water supply.
Jon: Is there any authority out there right now that you think has the trust of the population out there, where if they were to say, “Yeah, we’ve checked this out and here’s where we think the problems are,” is there, is there anything there with some level of authority or trust or are, is everyone just relying on Norfolk Southern and some, you know, federal issuance from the EPA or the state EPA?
Julie: I think that’s hard to say. People are wary, especially because right at the beginning, you know, the EPA was out there saying, the air is safe, it’s fine, you know, people were worried.
Jon: The video’s one of the craziest things I’ve seen on American soil in a non-attack situation where you just, I was stunned by it. It just, it’s truly shocking.
Jon: Uh, and Julia, what, do you know what happened to, there was a gentleman who was arrested. There was a reporter who was trying to cover something and was erected and I think that also, led some people to believe that something more devastating is going on here because it was such an unusual thing to do.
Julia: I don’t know anything more than has been released about the reporter’s arrest. But I think you’re right that, you know, between the images of this plume, the reporter being arrested, sort of people being told everything’s OK when, as you said, the foxes were bloated and the chickens were dying.
Julia: And then, you know, complete silence from the Biden administration for days. I think the entire thing has, maybe one might say unusual, one might say sort of this is the world that corporate lobbyists have created for us, and you know, we’re all just living in it.
Jon: I thought it was so interesting, the difference in urgency of the evacuate- you know, they said, “If you do not evacuate, we will arrest you on felony charges of like, child [endangerment]” I mean, really, “You’ve gotta get outta here and you’ve gotta get outta here fast.” And five days later they were just like, “OK, evacuation over. Everything is safe now. I don’t know what we were thinking about that whole we were gonna arrest you before. It’s all good, now come home and as a matter of fact, we’re gonna throw a picnic.” Matt, who’s got the trust of the rail workers right now, who do they buy in all of this?
Matt: I was pretty excited about Biden, Buttigieg, the people that got in there that they would, they would definitely defend the working class and with rail labor, I feel like we’ve been let down. I mean, we’ve had a contract imposed on us. No sick days in national bargaining. I have a hard time. I’m a member of Railroad Workers United, Rail Road Workers United dot org, and they’ve been very vocal about cross craft solidarity and what it takes to defend rail labor. I mean, in, the early 1900s, we had 1.5 million rail workers, now we’re down to 117,000. The industry’s been decimated, the manpower’s been decimated, and I think it takes a toll on safety for the American people and the workers.
Jon: I mean, Matt, do you feel like, I hate to put it this way, but are people gonna have to die? Are rail workers gonna have to die before somebody takes this seriously enough to make the changes that it seems like are basic common sense? Infrastructure is basic common sense, and to squeeze workers on sick days when there’s so few of them left, it just, none of this makes sense other than, as you say, corporate capture and oligarchy like, this, it’s cut. Even the industry is cutting off its own nose despite its face on this one. It strikes me as.
Matt: Most definitely. I’ve seen, um, in my career, I’ve seen 11 guys perish from cancers.
Matt: Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and esophageal cancer, the guys that I’ve worked with.
Jon: Right. A lot of those blood and absorption cancers that you see around toxic sites.
Matt: And only two of those guys got to retirement. I mean, my coworkers that I worked with every day have died from these cancers. And it’s very frustrating to see. It’s worrisome.
Jon: Julia, do you have hope that this is, you know, I hate to say a wake up call for the industry because we, it, what it feels like is they’re gonna wait out until people are no longer paying attention that the news cycle moves in such a way that small working class communities will be easily forgotten once the smoke plume dissipates. Is that what you’re thinking, Julia?
Julia: Yeah. I mean, look, Norfolk Southern just announced on its most recent earnings call that they’re increasing their dividend. So the company is perfectly happy. [JON LAUGHS] I don’t think the industry has any reason to change things, and I think it’s sort of a matter of whether the government is going to step in and change the rules a little bit. And you know, as Matt was alluding to, in December, Democrats and the Biden administration busted a potential strike by rail workers that was sort of an effort, not just to win things like paid sick days, but also my understanding Matt, is longer inspection times. So I think the workers, you know, have been trying to seek, in a contract, um, better safety measures, better staffing measures. Uh, there’s the two man crew issue that we were talking about.
Julia: Um, and you know, what side, what side is Biden gonna be on in this?
Jon: Right. And how’s he gonna balance that? Because you know, he is working class Joe, I don’t know if you know this, he is a big fan of trains. Mostly Amtrak. I guess not the ones, with the vinyl chloride, but the ones with the club sandwiches and the dining cars and these kinds of things.
Julie: I think what has been alluded to here is sort of, this area of the country is already considered kind of a forgotten area. I mean, it’s very easy to, like you said, wait till the next news cycle because look, this is where the coal miners were, this is where the steel industry was. These are all areas, these are all industries that have sort of faded and people are still trying to figure out, are these towns even going to survive? And then something like this happens. And it’s like, is it even livable here anymore?
Jon: I gotta say, I think one of the biggest hopes of this is to leverage, someone’s gonna figure out how to use this as a political attack, and I think almost the best thing that the towns and the rail industry can hope for is to ride some of that momentum into change because that’s actually how it’s going to progress. Because what’s gonna happen is if somebody figures out they can use this to their political advantage, it’ll put them on the defense. It’s kind of how we operate. We don’t do the right thing, we do the thing that we have to do to not lose the job. And so I think that, you know, that may be something when you guys are talking about organizing you know, to try and keep in mind. If somebody in Washington believes they’re gonna get hurt by this, that’s your best chance of having some action. And if they think they can get away with ignoring it, they’ll do that too.
Julie: I mean, I would also add that if, you know, along this vein, it’s like look, Ohio was for a long time considered a state that could go either way politically and now is a fully red state in large part because of this area. The counties around this is Columbiana County, this area around Northeastern and Eastern Ohio. I think this area had voted democratic since 1972 until the Trump years.
Julie: And so that’s something I’m always looking into is the more electric vehicle plants and battery plants they bring in, will, that shift people to thinking, oh, maybe the Democrats are onto something with this new economy that sort of idea.
Jon: Well, maybe that infrastructure bill has something, but I think there’s always, sometimes also a disconnect. I mean, as Julia talked about, you know, as you said, they went Republican when Trump came in and they switched over there, and he’s the one who helped repeal all the safety standards for the rail lines that are going through there. So sometimes it’s just not, there’s strange disconnects and people vote for all kinds of different reasons. I meant it more in the way of the pressure that politicians sometimes feel when they feel under attack is oftentimes the best way to get action for them to do the right thing. And I do think that those infrastructure bills may have something in there. Julia, have you seen anything in that? Are these new infrastructure bills going to bring something to these towns and these industries that you think can be helpful?
Julia: One thing that’s quite interesting about how the Inflation Reduction Act was designed is that it gives companies incentives to invest in green industries in places that previously had, you know, fossil fuel or other dirty industries. So there’s this real sort of geographic element to the investments, which is quite smart. So if you know there’s a shot at sort of a cleaner and greener future, it might lie in that. Although I think the points Julie’s making about how, you know, really the up and coming industry in some ways in that area is petrochemicals and obviously that’s pretty dirty.
Matt: And don’t get me wrong, Ohio is very swampy. House Bill 6 and the corruption that’s going on was defunding green energy and funding subsidizing coal-fired plants in other states. So Ohio’s got some really big problems.
Jon: Right, and not maybe also while moving towards those maybe different industries, shoring up the infrastructure on the industries that clearly exist there and are an important lifeline to a lot of these communities, and I think has to be addressed as well.
Jon: Alright, man. Well listen, thank you guys so much for joining us. Julie Grant, Julia Rock and Matt Weaver. I wish you guys the best, Julie you know, keep in touch and let us know how this town is holding up in what they’re doing and make sure that they are getting the kind of baseline healthcare that will set them up to be able to detect some of the things that might be coming their way over these next few years so maybe some of this can be avoided, but I really appreciate you guys being here to talk about it.
Matt: Thanks so much.
Julie: Thank you, Jon.
Julia: This is great. Thanks so much.
Jon: Thanks guys.
Interview with Julia Rock, Matt Weaver and Julie Grant Ends
Jon: Here’s the thing, the toughest part, it’s that view on the ground of those folks. The people who live in that town who are like, “We don’t know what to do.” There are so many, when you think about the general emergencies that hit places, there is a sense of, “Oh, there’s a protocol for this. I understand what to do, we understand the devastation. We know how to clean it up. We know how to rebuild. We know how to rebound.” With this, it’s the uncertainty where they’re just sitting there like, “Can I eat the food?”
Alexa: Right. Yeah. And I think with that uncertainty, the default that people go to, whether it’s leadership or the people on the ground, is like, it’s better if we just decide it’s OK. You know, like this isn’t that big a deal and like maybe it’ll be cheaper if we just decide that it’s over. But where I feel like if we all just could agree on like the worst case scenario, that would actually, I don’t know.
Jon: Why don’t we all just assume —
Jon: — that this is terrible for people —
Alexa: Right, yes.
Jon: — and act accordingly and stop acting like, listen, “We tested the [water]. My guess is it’s not going to seep into your produce, so carry on.” And because the reason is the things that this will cause you won’t see for maybe years.
Alexa: Right. Yeah.
Jon: And so by then, who the f*** knows where we’ll be. So why bother?
Henrik: Historically, there’s, I can’t think of a single case where it’s never been like, “We totally overreacted, all the birds and fish are fine, people’s skin cleared up.”
Jon: Except for the balloons.
Henrik: The stuff that we can go to war, we get hyped about.
Jon: That’s the stuff. That’s right.
Jon: And I’m so annoyed at, you know, you’ve got some of these like very on the right populist figures talking about how we’ve gotta fix this. Meanwhile, these are the motherf***ers that would never spend money on infrastructure that always shoot those budgets down, that make it impossible for any government to regulate anything and they’re out there, you know, JD Vance is out there, “This infrastructure bill doesn’t do that. And the working people.” Well tell your f***ing judges. Tell all the people you appoint, then, to put some teeth into the regulatory state that can force these rail companies to make the changes that they need to make, to make these safe for workers and safe for the middle class people that are living in these towns. Man, they get up on that high horse, “the Biden administration, and they’re this Inflation Reduction Act won’t fix it.” Well, you know what caused it in the first place? Your f***ing policies. Man, that drives me nuts.
Henrik: It’s insane. He’s a, he Vance is a venture capitalist. What side of this do you think he comes down on? Hedge funds that own this or the people in these small towns?
Jon: He and Tucker go on and they play act.
Jon: They play act this concern for working people and populism. Meanwhile, everything that they put in place politically in their infrastructure is against regulatory improvements and help for working class people. It’s baloney.
Alexa: Civil War-era brakes.
Jon: Civil War!
Henrik: They didn’t believe in germs yet. [JON LAUGHS] Do you know the actual protocol for cleaning your utensils in the Civil War was stick it in the ground and pull it back out. That’s the technology that we’re operating at.
Alexa: OK, to be fair, I still do that. [HENRIK LAUGHS]
Jon: “I need to go to the bathroom, why not do it in the water we drink?” [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Alexa: Oh, you don’t piss in your water?
Henrik: “We can actually get a two-for-one on the water, you can go to the bathroom in it and we use it to clean our medical supplies.”
Jon: “No one will be the wiser!”
Henrik: “By the way, these train breaks are top of the line.” [LAUGHTER]
Jon: “Let’s never change them no matter what. Agreed? Agreed.” [ALEXA LAUGHS] Uh, Well, I really do hope that, that these guys get some of the help they needed and it’s starting to feel like some coverage is picking up, but only because it looks like it’s starting to be weaponized as a political issue, and that’s going to attract more media attention, unfortunately, than a giant plume of smoke that may be poisoning people in you know forgotten areas.
Alexa: And I will just say you know, I will speak for the train towns since I’m from one. Like, everyone refers to them as like, “Oh, forgotten towns.” But like the people that live there, it’s not a forgotten town to them. You know? It’s like present day. Everyone —
Jon: That’s a good point.
Alexa: Everyone that they know is there, living their lives. It’s like a full, realized place. [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Jon: Now when you say, I think what people mean by forgotten is the industries that started those towns that gave them the momentum and impetus to become boom towns has in many ways collapsed.
Jon: And thus, you know, I think forgotten is probably, you’re right, that’s the wrong word. It’s ill-tended to.
Jon: So that we’ve allowed them to wither in ways that are unnecessary.
Jon: And maybe that’s a better way of looking at it than forgotten.
Henrik: It’s also who forgot it, right? They didn’t forget about them.
Henrik: National media did, not to get on my Republican talking point horse, but —
Jon: Here we go.
Alexa: Giddy up. [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Henrik: Like we’ve lost local news, right? So coastal media is the only thing that covers the country, and to them they forgot about you know, eastern Ohio. The people in eastern Ohio didn’t forget about it. Uh, but then they have to fly somebody in there as like a war correspondent because there’s not, they don’t have any information sources coming from there.
Jon: I love the idea of that as an embed. “Somebody I’ve embedded now in East Palestine not trying to do,” but what do you do? Part of it is, and it’s a discussion we never really have in the country, which is, what do you do when the world changes faster than where you live? And how do we deal with the disparity between digital worlds and analog worlds and how they can coexist in a way that doesn’t feel like abandonment? Because it feels at times like abandonment. That I’m not suggesting, it’s not like saying like, you know, “The horse industry. We’re not forgotten. We’re still here. And everybody’s like, but these cars, I’m telling you.” It’s like, how do you deal with those shifts in industry and geography that absorbs some of that energy that’s no longer there. I think that’s just, it’s such a more nuanced conversation about what people are consuming and how they’re consuming it. And how do you bring those along? You know, if the identity of your town is, you know, Alexa even said it, I come from a train town. What do you do when people stop that as a vital source?
Alexa: You go work at Verizon. [JON LAUGHS]
Jon: Well that, OK [ALEXA LAUGHS]
Alexa: We have a Verizon.
Jon: Alright, well, s***. I was coming up with a whole policy prescription.
Alexa: No, no. Yours is better. Yours is better.
Henrik: Jon, you’re over complicating it. You just go work at Verizon. [JON AND ALEXA LAUGH] It’s pretty simple.
Jon: Is there a Hobby Lobby?
Alexa: Oh, definitely.
Jon: Then f****** go there.
Alexa: Hell yeah.
Henrik: This town was not big enough to have a Fuddruckers. I once did a show in a town in Michigan, it’s in like eastern Michigan. I can’t remember the actual name of it. The billboard says like, Showboat City.
Jon: Oh, welcome to Showboat City, OK.
Henrik: Because there was a river that went through the town that had a showboat on it, and once a year for like 40 years, stars would come in, like Wayne Newton would come and play at this town every year.
Alexa: Love that guy.
Henrik: And people would gather in this amphitheater on the river and watch the showboat come through town, and it would park there for like a week, and it was like the whole source of this economy or whatever. And then the river dried up, and the showboat went away. And so they didn’t have shows anymore. And it was, this town was like the reason we were there, was I had a friend who was from this town and he was like, “You should bring all these comedians from Chicago, we’re all gonna go there. We’re gonna do a show.” And we went and we did a show and it was super fun, and people were like, “You brought the show back to Showboat City.” But when you go to those towns, you’re like, how do you, if your thing’s been based on one thing, how do you pivot to something else?
Jon: Your whole identity. Right.
Henrik: And if it, whether it’s the railroad or Wayne Newton coming for a week every July it’s, and whose responsibility is it?
Jon: There’s an identity to it. That’s right. And then also listen, the young people in the town then don’t wanna stay there anymore. And so the town ages in a certain way. And then the older people always say the same thing, which is, “I wish this town was different, but don’t ever change it.” You know, it’s that weird, like, it’s gotta say the same. My only question is, after the show, did anyone come up to you and say, “Henrik, that was no Wayne Newton. [ALEXA LAUGHS] That was just not my —”
Alexa: Big shoes to fill.
Jon: “I’m not sure that was Showboat material.”
Henrik: “Your sketches were really great, but we would’ve loved to hear Viva Las Vegas, actually.”
AlexaL Yeah. They were like, “We’re glad the river dried up.”
Jon: Afterwards they come up to you and go, “Henrik, great show. We can’t base a f***ing town on that. I’m sorry.”
Henrik: “We will simply not be short form improv city.” [LAUGHTER]
Jon: Alright! That does it! That is this week’s The Problem. We got our shows coming out on Apple TV+. Alexa, Henrik, thank you so much. I want to thank all the folks that talked to us, Matt Weaver, Julia Rock, and Julie Grant, and we will talk to you guys next week. Thanks.
Alexa: Ta ta.
Henrik: See you.
The Problem with Jon Stewart podcast is an Apple TV+ podcast and a joint Busboy production.