We need to start taking action before a tragedy, not after

Risha Chada | Managing Editor

February 3 spelled disaster for the residents of East Palestine, Ohio. The industrial town became hazardous in a matter of seconds as a Norfolk Southern train spilled toxic chemicals and contaminated the water and air. Those who have lived in East Palestine for their entire lives were forced to relocate within days while officials tested the surrounding areas for toxins.

However, this was not an isolated incident. On just March 4, another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Springfield, Ohio. 28 train cars flew off the rails in a hailstorm of metal, instilling fear and mistrust into Springfield residents this time. Luckily, no hazardous materials spilled in this derailment, but two incidents in just over a month of each other is a clear sign that railroad safety measures need to be updated.

In the wake of this disaster, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown and Republican Senator J.D. Vance, both of Ohio, proposed the Railway Safety Act of 2023 to strengthen requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials, increase fines for violations by rail carriers and fund $27 million for research on safety improvements. 

Despite this bipartisan progress, the initial response to the derailment was severe partisanship. Republicans are attacking President Biden, and his appointed secretary of transportation Pete Butglieg, for their handling of the derailment and the resulting ecological damage. On the other hand, Democrats are criticizing the Trump administration for loosening rail safety precautions and regulations during office.

It is a tale as old as time; Congress seems to have resorted to name-calling and blaming rather than actual progress once again.

Clearly, there is a pattern. The two sides of our seemingly very divided spectrum only strive to make progress after a disaster. In this case, an entire town needed to be polluted, its residents fearful of every rash and bump and children growing up with a liver cancer diagnosis looming over their entire lives.

Furthermore, railroad companies have among the most effective lobbyists of an industry, creating yet another barrier to seeing real change in rail safety. Corporations like Norfolk Southern use lobbyists to lower safety regulations, cut costs and leave places like East Palestine to pay the price.

However, it seems as if the only thing that can deter these lobbyists and push the American people to push their government is a disaster. With disaster comes anger, grief and fear, urging policymakers and politicians to capitalize on common sentiment to enact legislation.

This system – inaction until disaster – is written into our history. Congress only created levees along the Mississippi River after devastating floods in the 1900s. They only became determined to reform workplace and labor laws after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York that killed nearly 200 people. They only created Homeland Security after the atrocities of the 9/11 attacks. And, more recently, Congress managed to pass the first majority bipartisan bill on gun control after the tragic mass shooting in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Every time we have seen major reform for the betterment of the people, it is tied to a disaster. Why must we experience tragedy before seeing progress? Our system should not need a disaster to jolt policymakers into action. We must start to act before there is a disaster – prevention must be the priority.