Reporting Live From Inside the Ohio Chemical Spill Fallout Atop the Western Catskills
It's not a stretch to say that this could rank as the worst man made ecological disaster in our lifetimes, and it appears that I am once again inside of the plume.
Normally, Down the Pipes is not literally about pipes, or what goes down them. This week, though? We’re doing actual pipe stuff, get psyched.
If you’re a regular or a soon-to-be regular, welcome back, you know the deal. For those who don’t: I’m James Del, this is a weekly blog about whatever catches my attention from week to week; sometimes it’s wildly profound and other times I just post shit I wrote when I was a teenager and go “hrm, 16 year old boys sure are monsters” (we haven’t done that in a minute I’ll get one of those cooking).
You never know what it’s gonna be, except this week. This week we’re talking about pipes and chemical disasters.
Hopefully you’ve heard of the train accident in Ohio by now, you all generally seem like a well-informed bunch from what I know of you so I’m going to assume a certain amount of literacy on the details (available here if you need a refresher). Actually, let’s collect some data, shall we?
One of the reasonable critiques of this situation has been that media coverage has been slow and clunky compared to how we cover other more minor disasters (a hurricane blowing through town gets the B-list of the national press corps doing 24 hour coverage on location, so far the only reporters I’ve seen going near Ohio are local affiliates), so I’m curious how long it took you to hear about this thing.
If you haven’t heard about it yet, don’t feel too bad. The event took place in a part of the country with VERY little national news infrastructure. What I mean is that instead of having a vibrant local news ecosystem with reporters at different publications and outlets jockeying for the best coverage, there is a single company called Nexstar that owns every broadcast station in the Youngstown DMA except NBC. ABC, Fox, and CBS are usually considered to be competitors, but thanks to deregulation of our media markets, Nexstar is allowed to own “competing” stations and effectively strangle competition for good reporting in that area. From their own website:
So a bad thing happened in a place with not enough people to cover it, and naturally the power brokers who run the country’s rail and chemical industries do not want you to freak out about what is happening here. They’ll use crisis PR battle tested terms like “controlled burn” or “containment strategies” meant to evoke a sense of calm on a population that is growing tired of corporate interests accidentally killing us in the name of increased profits. They’ll produce positive sounding test results that claim the air is clean and that the water is drinkable, despite the fact that sampling is limited and it generally takes time for chemicals to seep downward through soil to aquifers. They’ll suggest we keep worrying about the balloons, nothing to see in this freight train crawling through your town.
Vice has been doing some of the best coverage of our crumbling national rail infrastructure. If you’re looking for the most thoughtful explanation of how the systemic deregulation issues in the rail industry got us here, this article explains all of it. They dive into the new “optimized” scheduling system that has fewer inspectors spending less time inspecting more trains, they call out the double standards that protect rail companies from legal liability while placing incredible strain and blame on the individual workers, and they highlight the numerous and normalized safety violations that lead to these kinds of disasters in the first place.
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