A 150-car train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio has led to more scrutiny of crashes involving hazardous materials. While that crash was the result of preventable safety issues that workers had been cautioning their employers about for years, as Motherboard has reported, people are starting to notice other alarming crashes and industrial accidents across the country. To some, this is evidence of a conspiracy, but the reality is far more sobering: Alarming toxic accidents happen nearly every day in America, and have for years.
A Tuesday crash in Arizona, just southeast of Tucson, involving a commercial truck carrying 2000 pounds of nitric acid, led to plumes of bright orange smoke wafting onto a highway, according to Newsweek. Arizona’s Department of Public Safety evacuated everyone within a half mile of the incident. An environmental consultant who contracts for the state told Newsweek that the risks would end "relatively quickly, in a matter of hours after the spill” because nitric acid dissolves upon contact with the air. On Thursday, another train derailment occurred outside Detroit with one car carrying hazardous material. The train was also run by Norfolk Southern, the company that ran the train in Ohio.
The crashes have led to waves of conspiracy theories; including a right wing podcast host convinced that purported spy balloons being shot down across the U.S. were merely a distraction from ecological disaster. Right wing pundit Laura Loomer also weighed in, proclaiming that the crashes were a “coordinated attack on our railway system” intentionally planned in battleground states. This narrative apparently seemed more plausible to Loomer than the ones about unsafe conditions that railway workers have been explaining for years.
Together, these news stories make it appear that crashes involving hazardous material are happening all the time across the country. One reason for that may be that crashes involving hazardous waste actually are happening all the time, across the country. They just don’t receive much scrutiny as there aren’t often larger news stories to which they can be connected. Toxic material is the ambient noise to American capitalism.
Data compiled by the Department of Transportation and the U.S. Census Bureau shows nearly 3 billion tons of hazardous material were moved across the United States in 2017, the most recent year for which data has been compiled.
According to data compiled by USA Today from federal reports, there have been more than 5,000 hazardous chemical leaks and spills from trains over the past decade. In 2022 alone, there were 337 incidents, enough for one to occur almost every day. As for derailments specifically, there have been 110 of those that resulted in a hazardous spill since 2015, according to data shared with Motherboard by the Federal Railroad Administration.
And it’s not just trains. There were 120 truck crashes in 2019 across the U.S. that involved hazardous material, according to federal data, or roughly one every three days.
One study published last year culled information on crashes involving hazardous materials from just three states, North Carolina, Ohio and Washington, found 1610 crashes involving hazardous materials between 2013-2017. 106 of those crashes resulted in fatalities.
So pervasive is hazardous chemical production and transport that a large chunk of the country exists in risk zones. The EPA estimates that about 12,000 facilities fall under the umbrella of its “Risk Management Plan,” designed to protect the public from “accidental chemical releases that can result in toxic clouds, fires, and explosions.” The EPA estimates that between 40 million to 170 million people live near facilities that could put them at risk if something goes wrong.
Evidence shows that the risk of a toxic spill is compounded by corporations squeezing workers. For trains, industry lobbyists successfully beat back improved brake standards under the Trump administration and fought against a broader classification of dangerous materials during the Obama administration. The causes of truck crashes are many, but the most serious accidents are more likely when people are fatigued or working late into the night. One study of truck crashes involving hazardous material found fatalities occurred more often when drivers are under 25, fatigued, distracted or speeding, or driving in the late night and early morning hours.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulates how long truck drivers can work, capping them at 11 hour shifts with at least a 10 hour break in between. They also have specific requirements for transportation of hazardous materials, but that pertains to training, vehicle specifications and proper procedure rather than workload.
Truck drivers have long complained that their hours are long, pay is low and they have few opportunities to rest, risking fines if they pull over in a spot not designated for them. The result is that annual turnover is 94 percent at larger trucking companies. Median wages for truck drivers have more than halved since 1980 when adjusted for inflation, according to The Guardian.
And loads are getting bigger. A Georgia house panel approved a bill allowing commercial trucks to carry 90,000 pounds on its road, up from 80,000 pounds. It still needs to clear the legislature and be signed by the Governor, but it’s approved by truck company owners who view it as a way to boost their bottom line. A group of 100 local legislators across Georgia signed a letter denouncing the bill.
The reason we transport so much hazardous material and the reason industries can twist legislators into paring back safety standards are linked; much of these hazardous materials are used in everyday goods that keep the economy going, and elected officials don’t want to be seen as constraining the supply chain and hurting people’s pocketbooks. The truck that crashed in Arizona, for instance, was carrying nitric acid. In large doses it’s harmful to the eyes and lungs, but it’s also used in fertilizer, plastics, in dyes and even for food preservation.
There is no conspiracy, except for the everyday conspiracy of American capitalism.
Update: This article was updated with data from the Federal Railroad Administration.