March 25, 2023
From Marxist Update

Debate over the road forward

Knocking on doors a few blocks from the derailment site March 15, members of the Socialist Workers Party found a wide range of opinions. Some told us they “trust what the government is doing,” but that seemed to be a minority view.

Lon Berresford, a carpenter who lives just south of the tracks, said he and his wife weren’t sickened by the chemical release, but heard there were more complaints on the other side of the tracks. Like several neighbors, they said they have no plans to leave. “If you’re afraid, you’re afraid,” he said, “but a lot of people are speculating on this.” So far 22 lawsuits have been filed against Norfolk Southern by area residents, and all but one are being consolidated into one big class-action suit.

Berresford had no doubt the railroad cut corners on safety. “All businesses try to make money, so it’s no surprise. That’s big business.” Like several other people we spoke to, he remembered when trains used to have a caboose, with crew members on the end who could respond to problems, like the overheating axle bearing that caused the derailment here.

Just north of the tracks, Kathy Smyth and Mark Thompkins said they and their 10-year-old daughter have all had symptoms since the derailment, including rashes, nose bleeds and severe eye irritation. SWP member David Rosenfeld said, “You can’t trust Norfolk Southern, the government regulators and politicians, or the wave of lawyers who’ve descended on this town.”

“That’s right,” said Smyth, who works two jobs, at a grocery store and a nursing home. “The only people we can trust are each other.”

Candace Wagner, a rail worker and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, pointed to the victory residents won in forcing Norfolk Southern bosses to rip up the tracks and remove contaminated soil, ballast and trackage from the area of the derailment. Their initial move was to get the trains rolling as quickly as possible, to start profits rolling again, and minimize the cleanup.

That was a victory, Smyth said, but the railroad-organized project is also kicking up toxic dust. She has visited clinics twice with severe eye irritation since it began. The town government has responded with street sweepers that can be seen on local streets.

Smyth and Thompkins, who work at a nearby factory, were interested in the issues rail workers face. “One of the main issues rail workers were ready to strike over last fall was schedules that make it hard for workers to build their union or have family time,” Wagner said. “But the Biden administration and Congress intervened to ban any strike and impose a contract on us.”

We discussed the fight needed by rail workers and our unions to control the conditions we work under with Sue Libert, who works as a church secretary. “They need to take better care of the rail workers,” Libert said. “I can’t believe how they work on call and don’t have sick days. And the trains are way too long.”

Fight for working people to control derailment cleanup – The Militant