REP. RO KHANNA: A Key Takeaway: The People In Charge Didn’t Care Enough

[Screenshot/YouTube/WKYC Channel 3 News]

Rep. Ro Khanna Contributor
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For the past forty years, our nation has given corporations free rein and allowed for the hollowing out of our middle class. The American dream has slipped away for so many Americans because the people in charge just don’t care.

Look at the devastating environmental catastrophe unfolding right now in East Palestine, Ohio. It didn’t have to happen. 

On Feb. 3, a train carrying toxic and flammable materials derailed in East Palestine, a fire erupted, and thousands of residents in the village and the surrounding areas were displaced from their homes. Now, noxious chemicals like carcinogenic vinyl chloride are polluting the surrounding air, soil, and water. Residents that were present are already reporting suffering from respiratory issues, skin reactions, and chemical burns.  

These are the working-class folks who feel abandoned by our nation. For decades, they’ve been hurt by NAFTA, the World Trade Organization admission of China, deindustrialization, and now poison in their air and water. 

America must do more to support people who feel invisible and rein in railroad corporate greed. We need to get to the bottom of how this happened, urgently assess the health risks to communities affected and make sure regulations are implemented that will prevent this from happening again. 

The bottom line is we need a rail industry that invests in its workers and a country that prioritizes people over profits. 

Before the derailment, Norfolk Southern, the railroad responsible, paid executives millions of dollars and spent billions on stock buybacks. Their CEO made over four million dollars in 2021. At the same time, the company was cutting staff and weakening the safety regulations that could have prevented this disaster from happening.

To put it simply, the railroad put more money into stock buybacks and lining the pockets of their executives than they did into preserving safety. Instead of stock buybacks, the company should use the money to help regular Americans.

The railroad also aggressively lobbied the Department of Transportation (DOT) in the months prior, opposing new safety standards like a proposed rule to require most trains to have two crew members on board to make it easier to respond to emergencies. Over the years, DOT weakened important safety precautions, repealing a rule that required electronic braking systems on certain trains carrying potentially hazardous materials. 

The Biden administration should immediately move to reinstate the electronic brake rule and work with DOT to establish additional rules like preventing older train cars from carrying hazardous materials. The railroad companies should also be required to disclose when a train is carrying any hazardous chemicals through populated areas. 

To empower communities across the country, we must provide them with more resources, like better air quality monitors, to track and protect against potential hazards. Finally, there must be accountability for the company and relief for the victims in this derailment.  The company should be required to pay all clean up and relocation costs. 

The sad truth is that this disaster in East Palestine should not have come as a surprise. Railroads workers have been warning about dangerous work conditions since the high-profile railroad contract negotiations last year. Brave workers spoke out about how rail companies have done everything in their power to squeeze labor, cut costs, and maximize profits. All they were asking for was a safe work environment, paid sick leave, and to be treated with dignity and respect. It’s a very reasonable ask.  

Our political leaders from all parties and from across the country need to speak out loudly for better safety regulations, but also for more investment and more awareness of what so many people are going through. It is heartbreaking and it is wrong. We cannot make Americans feel invisible. 

Congressman Ro Khanna has represented California’s 17th District since 2017.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.