Log in Subscribe

A few of our stories and columns are now in front of the paywall. We at The Chief-Leader remain committed to independent reporting on labor and civil service. It's been our mission since 1897. You can have a hand in ensuring that our reporting remains relevant in the decades to come. Consider supporting The Chief, which you can do for as little as $3.20 a month.

Bomb train disasters are the symptom of elite rule


The horrific Norfolk Southern train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio, last month is just the latest of a long line of recent train disasters. The chemical fireball poisoned the city and sickened residents for miles. Another one of its chemical trains wrecked days later near Detroit and there have been two more crashes in Gothenburg, Nebraska, and New Caney, Texas. 

According to the U.S. government, there were an average of 1,700 train wrecks every year between 1990-2021. Since 2008, 31 people have been killed and 1,759 injured. 

These crashes are what railroad workers call “bomb trains.” Carrying multiple carloads of highly toxic chemicals, these mobile ecological catastrophes move through countless cities and towns every day. Days after the crash, Norfolk Southern bomb trains could be seen traveling through East Palestine past the burned wreck still lying in heaps along the tracks. 

Because of federal regulations they helped write, the companies are only required to have two workers on a train and virtually no safety measures in place. 

Carrying about 28 percent of all cargo in the U.S., the trains continue to be a critical and profitable part of the transport and logistics infrastructure of the country’s economy. As I discussed in an earlier article, the Biden administration and congressional Democrats broke the threatened railroad strike last December to keep the trains moving and the profits flowing. This was at the expense of workers and local communities visited by these rolling ecological catastrophes.  

The train that wrecked in East Palestine is merely a symptom of a problem that’s larger than betrayal by the Democrats.  

As I explain in my new book, "We the Elites," to pass environmental and worker safety laws they must pass over the numerous roadblocks and impediments that force supporters to compromise in order to get anything passed. By the time the laws are enacted they are so watered down that they are no longer a threat to business.  

But even these weak laws cannot be enforced because of the way laws are transformed into regulations in our constitutional system

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution requires that the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” The process of turning statutory laws passed by Congress into administrative laws we call federal regulations and then enforcing them is also riddled with roadblocks and obstructions. This process allows those opposed to the law to bleed it to a “death by a thousand cuts” while it’s being written into regulations.  

Using lobbying, campaign donations and the revolving door between industry and government, regulations are written to corrupt, erode and water down regulations so that they no longer threaten the interests of those who are supposed to be regulated.  

This happens several ways. Because the fines are very low they actually create perverse incentives to violate the law. Companies know that it is more profitable to violate the law and pay the fine, if they are even caught, than to change their operations to follow the law. In fact, not only does the insurance company pay the damages but much of the fines and settlement costs are tax deductible. 

The regulations are also written to limit what activities are prohibited. For example, our chemical safety laws have resulted in a tiny number of the 85,000 chemicals on the market to be tested first. The only way to ban a chemical is to prove it is dangerous. This rarely happens.

Finally, industry executives are frequently appointed to serve as regulators, which results in the proverbial “fox watching the henhouse.” 

This “industry capture” is hardly new.  

President Teddy Roosevelt, mistakenly nicknamed a “trust buster,” invented the process by which corporations are supposedly regulated. Government blows a loud horn when they violate the law. The government threatens to prosecute but in the end settles out of court for tiny fines. No one is criminally prosecuted in exchange for the company signing a “consent decree” promising to stop misbehaving for a short period of time before their record is swept clean. Not surprisingly, the criminal behavior flares back up a short time later and the process starts all over again. 

This is why the East Palestine disaster happened. The train corporations lobbied to change the rules that make these deadly wrecks more common. The companies risk being charged with only misdemeanors and extremely low fines for breaking the law.  

According to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the maximum federal fine for unsafe transportation of hazardous materials is less than $250,000. CNN reports that if Norfolk Southern fails to clean up their wreck the most the EPA can fine the company, which earned $4.8 billion in operating profits last year, is $70,000 a day. 

This type of “industry capture” government is the symptom, not the cause, of the problem.  

The source of the problem is the Constitution itself. “Separation of powers” allocates lawmaking to Congress and enforcement to the president. As a result, these work as minority checks the propertied elites use to turn a defeat into victory. If they are unable to stop the law from passing, they can gut it when it is sent to president for a federal agency to turn it into new regulations.    

That path through the federal bureaucracy commonly lasts years. The new federal regulations are written by regulatory agencies staffed by former corporate executives and influenced by corporate lobbyists.  

When the new rule is finally issued, sometimes a decade later, the White House can throw it out and start the process all over.  

And if a law is actually enforced, corporations can sue in federal court to have them thrown out or whittled down to a kiss on the wrist. 

This has happened to numerous environmental, worker safety and immigration regulations. For example, the rule that would reduce climate destroying emissions by gas and coal burning power plants has yet to go into effect more than a decade later. It began when Bush II unsuccessfully tried to block a handful of states from enforcing their own laws. He lost twice in the Supreme Court.  

The East Palestine disaster is one of literally thousands of corporate crimes that litter the history of our country. Corporations are free to kill their workers, pollute and blow up small towns, and destroy the environment. The Capitol Hill Citizen reported about a Caterpillar worker literally melted to death. The company will only be fined $145,027 and can only be prosecuted for misdemeanors under the 1970 OSHA law. Since the law passed, only 115 cases have been prosecuted. More than 425,000 workers have died on the job. OSHA is literally a dead letter for workers killed on the job.

The Pacific Gas and Electric Company literally blew up a neighborhood in San Bruno and destroyed the town of Paradise in California, killing and injuring many. Although it is a convicted murderer, the company still exists. 

The regulatory process ensures that no corporate executives are jailed. Fines total only a few days or weeks of profits. Lawsuits for damages are settled. Killer corporations live to kill again and again.

Norfolk Southern, Caterpillar, Exxon, BP and PG&E and are the rule, not the exception.  

They are the predictable consequence of our Constitution, which empowers the propertied elite to block the will of the majority to protect workers, the environment and our communities from the destruction and pillaging of capitalism. 

Robert Ovetz is editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle,” and the author of “When Workers Shot Back,” and the new book “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few.” Follow him at @OvetzRobert


1 comment on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • Mr Jamesy Mac

    Whatever the corporate-skewed protections, let us hope & pray that enhanced protections/checks & balances are instituted @ ASAP.


    Even more 'local rule due diligence' exercised re such within dense urban areas when/where such toxic-loaded RR freight passes through!

    JM McHale

    Thursday, March 9, 2023 Report this