On February 3, 2023, the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio resulted in dismaying amounts of toxic chemicals released into the atmosphere and subsequent evacuation orders. In a town where residents were already facing socioeconomic obstacles, this disaster exacerbated safety and quality of life concerns.
Almost three months later, residents are still in disarray with many staying in motels due to valid fears of returning or official prohibition as a result of ongoing cleanup. Those that have returned are still extremely concerned about the air, water and soil quality.
Property value reduction, long-term health ailments and mental health issues are just a few causes of distress for residents. This incident sickened and displaced many in the community. It catalyzed previous conversations about safety precautions and the location of such railroads which are disproportionately placed in lower-income, often Indigenous, communities of color.
While derailments have decreased by more than three quarters since the 1970’s according to federal data, large freight railroads have seen an increase in derailments in five of the last seven years. Large freight railroad companies began introducing precision-scheduled railroading in 2016 to enhance efficiency by running fewer trains on tighter schedules. With a goal of cutting expenses, trains tend to be longer and heavier in an effort to transport as much cargo as possible. Tighter scheduling to cut costs could arguably be the cause of increased human error, equipment and track failure.
Despite historic activist outcry regarding train route placement in marginalized communities, industry leaders say that most derailments occur within the confines of rail yards and make public statements focusing on train safety in comparison to other modes of transportation such as driving. This deliberate disregard for ostracized community concerns is unfortunately common practice by many corporations and public officials.
The Biden Administration made a statement committing to visit East Palestine but has not followed through and has continued to defend its response to this toxic freight train derailment, even as local leaders demand increased efforts and clarity around the long-term effects of the disaster.
When disasters happen as a result of corporations’ carelessness, PR is often thought of only in terms of damage control for the company responsible. But PR practitioners are also responsible for utilizing their expertise to aid the communities impacted by such tragedies.
PR professionals play an enormous role in the dissemination of information concerning the initial and long-term response to such calamities. During the initial phases of such an event, PR professionals must work with journalists and their clients to galvanize public awareness and financial contributions. Long-term responses involve recognizing the reality that our world today is afflicted by a plethora of problems that deserve attention and require resources and thus doing our part to ensure that those affected are not forgotten.
In the case of the train derailment in East Palestine where the long-term health implications of this event are largely unknown, pushing for thorough monitoring of the water and air quality is indispensable. Long-term coverage and media attention and connecting media to those on the ground who can tell their stories is paramount to holding Norfolk Southern Corporation accountable for the promises they have made to remedy this situation, and for putting pressure on government officials to enact better safety regulations and to address the socioeconomic implications. A primary responsibility in this response must also be to encourage continued research into health hazards associated with spilled chemicals such as vinyl chloride and phosgene.
The issue of train derailments has been a historic point of contention, often affecting communities already facing additional deprivation and disparity. PR for situations intertwined with oppression such as this involves amplifying community voices, extending our resources, connecting with our audiences to encourage additional assistance and monitoring media and social platforms for the vocalized needs of those impacted.
As we move forward, we must keep those affected a priority by encouraging our clients to contribute when appropriate. All the while, no initiative should merely be intended for press opportunities. As with the PR tactics surrounding any tragedy, the intention must be to benefit those impacted by raising awareness and resources, magnifying the needs of the affected community and educating the public on ways to prevent similar events.