By Megan Caska
RepresentUs Director Of Political Campaigns

March 17, 2023

You’ve probably heard by now that in early February, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Of the 38 cars that derailed, eleven were carrying hazardous fuel. These toxins ignited immediately, endangering the health of the 5,000 residents of East Palestine. Because toxic chemicals were released into the air, authorities issued an evacuation order for anyone within a mile radius of the crash. While officials have said it’s safe for them to return to their homes, there have been reports of thousands of dead animals and people experiencing various health issues.

No doubt – the photos of the fire and black plume of smoke were shocking. The sad reality, however, is these kinds of events will continue to occur so long as corruption plagues our government. Even though the number of overall train derailments has declined since the 1970s, the number of cars carrying hazardous materials that derailed increased. Even more concerning is that, under pressure from rail industry lobbyists, politicians of both parties have loosened regulations.

Here’s why the East Palestine public health crisis is a symptom of a broken political system where special interests too often get their way.

@representus "At the end of the day, this isn’t about Right versus Left, or rural versus urban. It’s about who has power in our government, and who our elected officials listen to." — Shea Williams. Our message is clear: elected officials must stop putting the needs of special interests over the needs of the voters. Shea has seen firsthand how corruption threatens the health of those living in East Palestine. Enough is enough. Join Shea, and us, by adding your name to our petition calling on the Biden administration to crack down on corruption and protect Americans' health. (link in bio). #EastPalestine #Democracy #Anticorruption ♬ original sound - RepresentUs

Both parties have caved to rail industry lobbying

In response to several high-profile derailments, the Obama administration proposed stronger safety rules for trains carrying hazardous materials. Seems like a reasonable response, right? Unfortunately, the rail industry got involved – successfully pressuring the administration into weakening their proposal. The final regulation only applied to trains carrying crude oil, ignoring the other various kinds of hazardous chemicals.

Under the Trump administration, it was deja vu all over again. In 2017, they scrapped a rule that enforced improved braking systems on trains. This decision followed more than $7 million in lobbying from industry PACs in the 2016 election cycle.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has declined to reinstate these rules. During the recent negotiations between rail unions and the industry, the Biden administration also failed to go as far as the workers wanted in implementing stronger safety regulations.

It couldn’t be more clear: Each of the last three administrations had a chance to prevent this crisis, but didn’t. The reason? Special interests dictate policy, leading to a more dangerous rail industry.

The braking system used on the Norfolk Southern train has been described as a “Civil War-era system.” Instead of investing in safety measures or its employees, Norfolk Southern has invested around $100 million in political spending since the 1990s. Their investment paid off. The rail industry has received more lenient safety rules, while the American people pay the price.


East Palestine is the latest example of our broken government

The rail industry is far from the only industry that prevents our politicians from representing us. Defense contractors spent over a billion dollars on lobbying from 2001-2021, as the government significantly increased its defense spending. The pharmaceutical industry is infamous for its lobbying efforts to prevent more affordable drugs and healthcare. These are all the signs of a political system beholden to special interests.

But in the wake of East Palestine, there are glimmers of a bipartisan movement to respond. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, called for Congress to look into stricter regulations on trains carrying hazardous materials. Meanwhile, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan, has issued similar statements calling for more regulations. They have been joined by politicians from across the political spectrum, including Ilhan Omar and J.D. Vance, underscoring the widespread support for more safety regulations.

Yet there are many popular policies in the U.S. that have not been enacted. Lobbyists have significant power to influence American politics, undermining our democracy. That’s why RepresentUs is fighting to take power away from deep-pocketed industry lobbyists and give it back to the American people.

Join the movement to tackle corruption, protect Americans’ health

Fortunately, there’s something we can all do about this. To prevent hazardous train derailments and other safety hazards, we need to tackle corruption. RepresentUs is calling on the Biden administration to root out corruption, enforce existing laws, and fight for health and safety standards that are necessary to protect our communities.

More broadly, RepresentUs is fighting to ensure our government works for us – not the rail industry or other powerful interests.

If you want to join the anti-corruption movement and fight the outsize influence of industry lobbying in the U.S., sign up for our newsletter below!

Contributors: Adam DuBard, RepresentUs Writer, Anh-Linh Kearney, RepresentUs Research Analyst

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.