Since a train carrying hazardous materials crashed in East Palestine, Ohio, coverage in both national and local Ohio newspapers lacked crucial information about Norfolk Southern, the corporation responsible for operating the train, its aggressive lobbying efforts to stymie rail regulations, and regulations that could have prevented the crash in the first place.
Out of 38 print pieces from local media, only 1 mentioned lobbying efforts made by Norfolk Southern to prevent safer railroad conditions. No paper mentioned the regulations that could have been in place to prevent an incident like this.
On February 3, 50 cars on a 100-car train — 10 of which were carrying hazardous materials — crashed in the town of East Palestine, Ohio. A few of the crashed cars were carrying vinyl chloride, a compound linked to various forms of cancer. As of February 12 the Environmental Protection Agency stated that it has not observed contaminants at “levels of concern” in the area, but 181 homes were still awaiting inspection as of early February 14 and the potential for medical complications is a looming threat. Animals have died and some residents have reported symptoms of chemical exposure. Gabriel da Silva, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Melbourne, told Newsweek that the crash is “a truly enormous environmental disaster.” Norfolk Southern has a history of investing in lobbying efforts, at least partly aimed at weakening transportation safety regulations and fired thousands of employees, despite warnings that understaffing would exacerbate safety risks. Norfolk Southern was also involved with lobbying efforts that eventually led to a federal agency limiting “regulations governing the transport of hazardous compounds” as a “way to resist braking regulations.” Jacobin elaborates:
Specifically, regulators killed provisions requiring rail cars carrying hazardous flammable materials to be equipped with electronic braking systems to stop trains more quickly than conventional air brakes. Norfolk Southern had previously touted the new technology — known as electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes — for its “potential to reduce train stopping distances by as much as 60 percent over conventional air brake systems.”
But the company’s lobby group nonetheless pressed for the rule’s repeal, telling regulators that it would “impose tremendous costs without providing offsetting safety benefits.”
That argument won out with Trump officials — and the Biden administration has not moved to reinstate the brake rule or expand the kinds of trains subjected to tougher safety regulations.
This means that trains — like the one that derailed in East Palestine — aren’t required to have a “high-hazard” designation and can avoid adhering to strict regulations in transporting hazardous materials.
Railroad Workers United has argued that unsafe practices, such as Precision Scheduled Railroading, are factors that have intensified unsafe conditions for railroad workers and contributed to the derailment in East Palestine. Unsurprisingly, Norfolk Southern — which is valued at nearly $54 billion, with over $11 billion in revenue in 2022 — has a history of fighting its workers’ unions, having issued an embargo to significantly limit service in September amid a looming rail workers’ strike.
All this context was missing in most of the coverage from local papers. Out of the 38 articles published by local newspapers in Ohio on the train derailment in East Palestine between February 3 and February 15, only 1 article mentioned lobbying efforts Norfolk Southern made to prevent further regulations for safer railroads. Not a single article mentioned regulations that could have been implemented to prevent the unsafe conditions that led to the derailment. Some Ohio-based papers like the Sandusky Register also republished wire articles about the derailment with little to no context about the bigger picture.
National print media have also dropped the ball when it comes to reporting on the broader context involved with the East Palestine disaster. In 12 articles written by the top 5 largest national print newspapers between February 3 and February 15 — The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today — not a single one mentioned Norfolk Southern’s lobbying against regulations or the regulations that would have been useful had they been implemented. Similarly, a Media Matters study on national television coverage of the crash found that, out of nearly 3 hours of coverage across cable and broadcast networks, only 3 segments included context about how regulations were weakened by Norfolk Southern’s lobbying efforts.
Media Matters searched print articles in the Factiva database from Ohio newspapers Ada Icon, Akron Beacon Journal, The Alliance Review, Ashland Times-Gazette, The Athens Messenger, Aurora Advocate, Bluffton Icon, Brunswick Son, Business Courier of Cincinnati, The Catholic Telegraph, Chargrin Solon Sun, Chillicothe Gazette, Cincinnati, Circleville Herald, Cleveland Business Journal, Columbus Business First, Columbus C.E.O., The Columbus Dispatch, Columbus Monthly, The Coshocton Tribune, The Courier, Crain's Cleveland Business, Cuyahoga Falls News-Press, The Daily Advocate, The Daily Gazette, The Daily Jeffersonian, The Daily Legal News, The Daily Record, The Daily Reporter, The Daily Sentinel, Dayton Business Journal, Dayton Daily News, The Delaware Gazette, The Enquirer, Fairborn Daily Herald, Fulton County Expositor, The Galion Inquirer, Gallipolis Daily Tribune, The Harrison Press, The Independent, The Ironton Tribune,The Journal-News, Lancaster Eagle-Gazette, The Lantern, The Lima News, The Logan Daily News, Mansfield News Journal, The Marion Star, Medina Sun, The Morrow County Sentinel, Newark Advocate, The News Democrat, News Herald, The News Record, News Sun, The News-Herald, The News-Messenger, The Nordonia News-Leader, Norwalk Reflector, Parma Sun Post, The People's Defender, Perry County Tribune, The Pike County News-Watchman, The Plain Dealer, Portsmouth Daily, Record-Courier, Record-Herald, The Register Herald, The Repository, Review Times, The Ripley Bee, Sandusky Register, Sentinel-Tribune, The Sidney Daily News, Smart Business Cleveland, Star Beacon, Stow Sentry, Sun Messenger, Sun Post-Herald, Sun Press, Sun Sentinel, Sun Star Courier, Swanton Enterprise, Tallmadge Express, Telegraph-Foru, Times Recorder, The Times Reporter, The Times-Gazette, Toledo Business Journal, Twinsburg Bulletin, Urbana Daily Citizen, West Shore Sun, Wilmington News Journal, The Xavier Newswire, and Hudson Hub-Times for any of the terms “Ohio,” “train,” “East Palestine,” or “Norfolk Southern” within close proximity of any of the terms “crash,” “chemical,” “waste,” “toxic,” “toxin,” “brake,” “Electronically Controlled Pneumatic,” “ECP,” “high hazard,” “HHFT,” or “volatility test” or any variation of any of the terms “derail,” “flame,” or “hazard” from February 3, 2023, when the freight train near the town of East Palestine, Ohio, derailed, through February 15, 2023.
Media Matters searched print articles in the Factiva database from the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today for any of the terms “Ohio,” “train,” “East Palestine,” or “Norfolk Southern” within close proximity of any of the terms “crash,” “chemical,” “waste,” “toxic,” or “toxin” or any variation of either of the terms “derail” or “hazard” from February 3, 2023, through February 15, 2023.
We then reviewed all identified articles for whether they included context about how rail industry lobbyists successfully weakened regulations governing the transport of hazardous materials by rail and whether they mentioned that the regulations that were lobbied against might have mitigated the disaster.
We then also reviewed all identified articles for whether they included context about how rail industry lobbyists successfully weakened regulations governing the transport of hazardous materials by rail under multiple administrations.