Cincinnati officials push sale of publicly owned railway to corporation responsible for disaster in East Palestine

On July 13 in Cincinnati, a small board of appointed officials made the decision to push forward their plan to sell off the country’s last and only municipally owned interstate railroad, the Cincinnati Southern Railway. The final approval of the sale will appear on the ballot for residents of the city on Nov. 7. Officials have stated that they would like to rush the ballot question as soon as possible to prevent it from “becoming politicized.” But in truth, city officials committed a highly political act and are trying to limit the public’s ability to organize against it. Cincinnati’s political and business elites want to present the issue as a common-sense business decision for the city, and any debate might bring uncomfortable questions about public safety, justice and their own corrupt dealings. 

Only five months after Norfolk Southern unleashed an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe upon the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, Cincinnati officials have continued to work behind the scenes with railway executives to reward Norfolk Southern and its shareholders with a lucrative $1.6 billion deal. The city’s officials have spent years quietly negotiating the sale of the CSR, a massive piece of infrastructure which runs through Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Officials are determined to proceed with the money-making deal, unmoved by the tragic events in East Palestine and the ongoing crisis in the community. Instead of increasing public control and accountability of the rail industry, which would help keep people safe, Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval would like to hand over all control to the very company that poisoned the East Palestine community and even forced the Greater Cincinnati Water Works to shut off its intake from the Ohio River. It is important that the public understand what is at stake, and to vote “no” on Nov. 7 and reject authorization of the sale.

The disaster is not over

Liberation News had the opportunity to interview Hilary Flint, who resides in Enon, Pennsylvania, approximately five miles away from the derailment. Her home is outside of the area Norfolk Southern will acknowledge as having been affected, yet her home tested positive for vinyl chloride and ethyl hexyl acrylate by Wayne State University. She has been affected by a number of health problems since the derailment.

Flint is also the vice president of the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment, a grassroots organization that developed in the aftermath of the derailment. The Unity Council is composed of a broad group of people from East Palestine and surrounding communities, and has helped affected residents gather and share information, resources and aid, as well as forming political demands for their community. 

When asked how she felt the response to derailment went and how things have developed subsequently, Flint replied: “The cleanup was haphazard and it continues to get worse. They are only testing within one to two miles, and outside of that radius they are missing a lot of information. It seems Norfolk Southern may not have supplied accurate information. I spoke to our regional coordinator at the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], who had said that this was the worst disaster he had ever worked on, because this isn’t just soil, water or air contamination. It’s all of the above.”

Flint’s skepticism about Norfolk Southern’s actions are justified. In a June 22 National Transportation Safety Board hearing, witnesses from OxyVinyl, the corporation which had produced the vinyl chloride in the derailment, stated that they had told Norfolk Southern on three occasions that they did not believe that the train cars were at risk of polymerizing and advised against the so-called “vent and burn.” The hearing also revealed that Norfolk Southern pressured officials with incomplete information, omitting the advice of OxyVinyl, to make a decision with a sudden 13-minute deadline. 

Flint criticized Norfolk Southern’s response to the derailment since the initial fallout: “Norfolk Southern has been using this whole thing as a big PR campaign. Instead of helping the community members that need testing or relocation, they’re building a $25 million park. People continue to develop new and worsening symptoms, but instead of acknowledging that, they sponsor a fireworks show. They’re bragging about how much money they are spending in East Palestine, but the truth is that the people are not seeing those funds. I know of 11 people in the community who have developed seizures in the last few months. None of them had seizures before. This isn’t a very large community, 11 people with new seizures, it’s not normal. It is really frightening.”

It is unclear if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating this outbreak of new-onset seizure disorders in the vicinity of East Palestine. In early March, the CDC reported that it was ending field work related to the derailment and shifting to data analysis. Shortly after this announcement, a CDC spokesperson revealed that seven of the 15 CDC investigators sent to East Palestine also fell ill with similar symptoms that community members surrounding the derailment had been reporting.

The gesture of building a park in East Palestine, as community members struggle to relocate and live with medical problems, is largely symbolic. The $25 million allocated to the park is a pittance for Norfolk Southern, which reported an income of $711 million in the first quarter of 2023, even after spending $387 million in charges related to the disaster. Norfolk Southern also assured investors that it believes that recovering the losses related to the derailment, through insurance and other means, is “probable.” Norfolk Southern recently filed a lawsuit seeking to recover lost revenue from the chemical companies which produced the vinyl chloride aboard the derailed train cars.

The railroad cartel

The disaster in East Palestine wasn’t an accident. It was a product of a system designed to put profit above people: capitalism. Under capitalism, politicians who are lauding the CSR deal, like Pureval, work to serve the interests of the powerful business class that dominate our world, including the railroad industry. 

The big four railroad companies have functionally created two duopoly markets which work as a de facto monopoly for most of the rail industry’s customers, something the U.S. House of Representatives acknowledged in 2007. The railroad industry has been able to exert tremendous influence in policy making, producing a system with little accountability and no regard for public safety or the environment. The United States had 1,197 derailments in 2022, and since 1990, has averaged 1,689 derailments annually, or 4.6 derailments every day for more than 30 years.

A federal law passed in 1995 has prohibited state and local governments from imposing stronger regulations and safety measures on railroads. Congress has no interest in improving the safety of our railways, as demonstrated seven months ago when President Biden and the U.S. Congress worked on bipartisan legislation to force rail workers into an unpopular contract and strip them of their right to strike, despite the railroads being the most profitable industry in the country. The changes in working conditions and staffing that have been imposed on workers directly contributed to the disaster in East Palestine. The railroad industry is in effect operating as a cartel, wielding tremendous power to force its demands on the people and remove accountability when causing disaster. 

The real solution to the crisis of rail safety and monopolization would be to nationalize all U.S. rail infrastructure, and give control to the workers who actually make the railways run. Nationalization is not unprecedented or even radical. The United States has already nationalized the rail industry once before, during World War I. The sale of the CSR represents a complete reversal of any solution by taking a publicly owned asset and handing it over to private interests, who must put profit before safety, or any other consideration, with every decision.

Officials in Cincinnati have calculated that by moving forward with the sale, and limiting the amount of time voters have to learn about its connection to Norfolk Southern, that they can limit public oversight. The corporate media has moved on from the disaster in East Palestine, despite the fact that the crisis has not stopped for its residents or the people in surrounding communities. Cincinnati officials are relying on the disaster becoming a distant memory, but for the victims of Norfolk Southern’s greed, this is impossible. 

Flint described how she felt when she first heard about the sale of the CSR: “This is a slap in the face to the people of East Palestine. What are they all thinking? We are still here, still dealing with all kinds of health problems from Norfolk Southern. People still need help. People are still having trouble relocating or testing. The amount of money they are spending is obscene. Why can’t Norfolk Southern use the $1.6 billion to help care for the communities that they have poisoned?”

Of their own accord, Norfolk Southern won’t use that $1.6 billion to care for the community because, like any business, it exists for the singular purpose of making a profit. This is the basis of capitalism itself and every company is subject to the same law of value. Every death or disaster is acceptable to a business so long as it does not meaningfully affect its ability to make profit and grow. Norfolk Southern will spend that $1.6 billion on the railway because it believes it is worth more than that. It would not invest in the rail’s ownership if it did not think it would be profitable. 

Despite Norfolk Southern seeing such value in the railroad, if you were to only listen to the words of city politicians, you would be led to believe that the railroad is a costly burden that is losing money. But that isn’t the case. Why is the CSR worth so much and why do political elites want to move that value into the hands of private capital?

The CSR and neoliberal rot

In 1869, the City of Cincinnati, with broad public support and through local referenda, set out to build an interstate railway that would extend more than 300 miles across three states. Workers finished its initial construction 11 years later, and it has since undergone billions of dollars worth of renovations and improvements over the past 150 years. The railway was built by workers over multiple generations to serve the public, and today the CSR moves around 25 million metric tons of commodities annually between Cincinnati and Chattanooga, Tennessee, which spans approximately 90% of the railway connecting the major logistical hubs of Cincinnati and Atlanta. It is an important railway that has great value, so why are political elites in Cincinnati, such as Pureval, after a century and a half of public ownership, so keen on turning this asset over to an infamously unaccountable corporation? 

Local paper CityBeat recently published an interview with Pureval, where he was able to articulate, without challenge, the decision to sell our railway. He described how city officials and their corrupt board, appointed by city officials, failed to negotiate a 25-year lease agreement with Norfolk Southern, and instead spent the past two years negotiating the sale of our public asset.

Here is what Pureval, who recently increased the city’s 2024 police budget by $10 million to a total of $180 million, had to say about their logic for the sale: “Right now, the $25 million that we get from the lease all goes towards existing infrastructure, and despite that $25 million a year we get on top of our infrastructure budget, we still have a $300 million deficit that is growing every year. We cannot catch up to that growing deficit, we cannot catch up to doing the basic services that a city needs to provide unless we get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shore up our city’s budget for infrastructure, not just right now, but into the future. By selling the railroad we will get a $1.6 billion trust fund to shore up our basic services for generations and we also get the benefit of getting out of a rail industry that is underregulated, undermanaged and risky. Certainly the environmental catastrophe that we’re seeing in East Palestine, no one here wants that and if we continue to hold on to this asset, we could be on the hook for liability if something like that happened here.”

When Pureval talks about being “on the hook for liability” he is not talking about the threat to the lives of the millions of people along the railway. Here, he is stating out loud that he, and the other corrupt politicians that operate the city, view the potential “liability” purely as a financial cost to the city, and a political liability to themselves. If they were concerned with the lives of the people along the CSR, instead of the financial cost, then they would never consider turning all oversight and control over the safety of the railway to Norfolk Southern. Norfolk Southern is not accountable to the people who live in Cincinnati or the people who live along the railway, as demonstrated by their response to the disaster in East Palestine. 

Pureval claims that the sale of CSR will cut off Cincinnati’s relationship to Norfolk Southern, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. If the sale is completed, Norfolk Southern will become a permanent fixture as the sole owner and operator of the CSR. Then, without fundamental change, there will be no possibility to negotiate safety rules or a better deal, not now or in 25 years.

Cincinnati’s officials, like all U.S. political elites, only seek to avoid responsibility and accountability in the event of a disaster. They have no desire to use their authority or their control over the railway and its board to prevent another disaster. Norfolk Southern has made no concrete assurance to Pureval that the railway will be improved or that the public will be safeguarded. 

The corrupt connection between the private interests of capital and local politicians pervades in every city, even when supposedly “progressive” Democrats rule unchecked. The logic of modern capitalist state governance, often labeled neoliberalism, sees all public ownership or democratic control over essential functions as an anathema — something to be sold off for the benefit of wealthy individuals to control. The CSR’s board of trustees has representatives from both the Republican and Democratic parties, but they are unified in their decision to sell the CSR. Examining the board reveals a clear example of the corrupt relationship between major party politicians and business interests.

Residents of Cincinnati cannot help but be familiar with the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, or 3CDC, as it is commonly known. 3CDC has completely dominated life within Cincinnati. Under the guise of “revitalizing” downtown Cincinnati and neighboring areas, 3CDC has bought and continues to buy hundreds of properties in Cincinnati, as well as now-formerly public spaces, such as the city’s Fountain Square. The tax-exempt corporation then converts these properties into high-rent commercial space, luxury condos, expensive boutiques and parking garages, while displacing low-income and poor residents, predominantly in Black-majority neighborhoods such as Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine.

A creation of the elite interests of businesses, politicians and so-called ‘developers’ within the city, 3CDC is the engine of Cincinnati’s gentrification, a growing juggernaut of corporate greed, and an immense source of corruption for the local government. The tax-exempt organization’s board of directors is composed of representatives from large corporations like Procter & Gamble, Kroger, GE Aviation and Fifth Third Bank, while operating on direct infusions of cash from the city, tax abatements and sweetheart deals from city and state governments. Unsurprisingly, the CSR Board of Trustees is filled with long-time political insiders who have deep connections to 3CDC.

Former mayor and founder of 3CDC, Charlie Lurken is the current vice president of the CSR Board of Trustees. CSR Board of Trustees president Paul Muething is also president of the Board of Directors at KMK Law, a law firm specializing in securing tax credits and tax increment financing from the government for private companies. In 2021, the company moved its single office into the building of 3CDC’s headquarters for “meeting [their clients] where they are.”

Board member Amy Murray, a former city council member and former Trump administration official, “[led] the Department of Defense COVID Small Business response”, a program that was used to enrich large companies with 1% interest loans. While CSR Board of Trustees member Mark Mallory, is another former mayor of Cincinnati. While in office, Mallory worked closely with 3CDC and afterwards started a consulting firm that “focused on […] public-private partnerships.” All current members of the CSR Board of Trustees were appointed by former Mayor John J. Cranley, who works in KMK Law’s “Real Estate Group and is co-chair of the firm’s government affairs practice area,” often working on behalf of 3CDC.

The connection between the CSR Board members and the development interests of 3CDC and others is crucial because of how the $1.6 billion from the sale is reserved to be used: to “rehabilitate, modernize, [and] replace existing infrastructure,” or in other words, to fund 3CDC and its network of private interests. The CSR Board of Trustees’ corrupt appointments were made under the authority of the mayor’s office and approved by the City Council.

The current mayor did not appoint the current slate of trustees, yet when CityBeat asked Pureval whether public safety or Norfolk Southern’s record of lobbying against safety measures, ever came up in negotiations for the CSR sale, Pureval said the following: “The railroad board has the exclusive power to manage that relationship with Norfolk Southern, both the lease and/or the sale. In fact, the railroad board has to approve the sale before it can go to council for a vote, and then it goes on the ballot. So all the negotiations were handled by the railroad board. So that’s a good question for them to answer.”

It is clear that the functionaries who control the CSR and Pureval are completely aligned on the sale of the railway, but Pureval can easily deflect any accountability to the board when difficult questions are asked. Pureval’s interview revealed a self-serving, neoliberal politician who is even willing to twist the tragic events in East Palestine to enrich Norfolk Southern and to suit his own political agenda.

“I think the most recent instance of the East Palestine environmental and human catastrophe that continues to unfold, was certainly a large event that made people reconsider the liabilities that’s associated with owning a railroad. So I think that most recently was the biggest instance of that. But I will say, since that catastrophe has occurred and continues to occur, we see almost on a daily basis, headlines from railcars that are derailing, or accidents that are happening, or deaths that are happening. Not just here in Ohio but around the country,” Pureval told CityBeat.

The true liability isn’t the financial liability to the city by owning a railroad, it is the danger profit-driven companies like Norfolk Southern present by owning and operating the railways that run through our communities and poison us. Under capitalism, companies like Norfolk Southern operate without regard for the lives of the people that live along their railways. And instead of helping the communities they poison, they build a park to generate positive press and then spend billions on buying a railroad.

Liberation News asked Flint what she would say to the politicians in Cincinnati who are trying to sell the railroad to Norfolk Southern: “This happened in East Palestine, but this could be you. You could be next. The kids in your town could be next. We will not know the extent of this impact for years to come. It is irresponsible to go through with the sale or to even let Norfolk Southern operate in your city. Don’t do it.”

Feature photo: Diesel locomotives at Queensgate Yard, Cincinnati. Photo credit: James St. John (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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