YouTube video

It’s been eight months since a catastrophic Norfolk Southern train derailment turned life upside down for people living in and around East Palestine, Ohio. While East Palestine has faded from the headlines, though, residents are still in desperate need of help, which they say they are not getting from Norfolk Southern or from their government. What has been done in the last eight months to help the people of East Palestine and to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for this disaster? What is being done on the legislative side to address the conditions on the railroads that have run railroad workers into the ground and put communities like East Palestine at perpetual risk, all while ensuring record profits for the rail companies and their shareholders? How can railroad workers and East Palestine residents work together to make sure catastrophes like this never happen again?  In this special livestream, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Chris and Jessica Albright, two residents of East Palestine, and retired railroad engineer and former Iowa State Representative Jeff Kurtz.

Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino


Maximillian Alvarez:  Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez, I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us.

It has been eight months since the catastrophic Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, changed the lives of residents in the area forever. On Feb. 3, 2023, around 9:00 PM at night, a Norfolk Southern freight train on its way from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, a train carrying over 100,000 gallons of toxic materials, derailed, and all hell broke loose from there.

If you follow The Real News, then you have watched and read and listened to our extensive coverage on the East Palestine disaster. You’ve heard us talk at length with residents living in and around East Palestine on my podcast, Working People, and right here on The Real News YouTube channel. You’ve heard us talk to numerous veteran railroad workers about how the conditions they have endured working for these greedy, cost-cutting, profit-maximizing companies directly contributed to the derailment in East Palestine and to making all of our communities less safe for the sake of record corporate profits.

Today, you’re going to hear from folks on both sides of this, people in the community and people working on the rails who have been hurt by these same companies, and who have been abandoned by the government officials and agencies who are supposed to represent them. And we’re going to talk about how we can continue to build solidarity between workers and the public at large, and how we can combine our efforts and our struggles to build the kind of coalition we need to help the people of East Palestine right now, because they need help now. But also to hold these companies accountable for the destructive practices, to hold our governments accountable for their failures to protect our people, and to make sure that disasters like East Palestine never happen again.

Now, before we get rolling, though, there are two things that I want to impress upon everyone watching this livestream before we get into anything else. First, the derailment of the Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine on Feb. 3 of this year and the subsequent controlled release and burnoff of toxic vinyl chloride is, without a doubt, one of the most catastrophic and devastating industrial accidents in our country’s history. And a catastrophe of equal or greater proportion could literally happen again tomorrow. Why? Because we have not substantively addressed the issues that led to the derailment and to the seismic impact of its toxic fallout since the Norfolk Southern train derailment.

Second, for the people still living in and around East Palestine, there is no going back to normal. Life will go on, of course, but it will never be the same. It will never again be what it was on Feb. 2 of 2023. As Kayla Miller, a resident, mother, and farmer living in East Palestine told me on a livestream fundraiser that I hosted right here at The Real News Network a few months ago, “I have fought for 13 years to get the life that I have now. My life was pretty good. And I feel like that night, in an instant, it all got ripped away. The life that I wanted for my kids could very well be gone because we may have to leave. My kids have been sick since this happened on and off: diarrhea, fever, vomiting, respiratory. It’s ongoing and it’s exhausting.”

So I want people to really remember that before we get into everything else, remember what these people are going through. And I beg you and I’m going to beg you again at the end of this, please don’t forget about them. Please keep fighting. Please don’t stop talking about East Palestine.

And to talk about all of this and more today, I’m honored to be joined on The Real News Network by Chris and Jessica Albright, two residents of East Palestine who were recently profiled in The New York Times. And if you want to know more about the hell that the Albrights and their neighbors have been going through since Feb. 3, I urge you to go read that profile and get everyone you know to read it as well.

We are also joined today by a familiar face, the great Jeff Kurtz. Jeff was a railway engineer and union member for 40 years. He served as a union officer most of his career, including eight years as president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainman, Local 391, and chairman of the BLET Iowa State Legislative Board, where he oversaw safety and legislative matters for the union and the state for four railroads for 10 years. Jeff retired in 2014 and served as state representative for one term in the Iowa House after winning the 2018 election in his House district. He now works in a volunteer capacity with Railroad Workers United and the local labor chapter of the Iowa Federation of Labor.

Chris, Jessica, Jeff, thank you all so much for joining us today on The Real News Network. I really appreciate it.

Chris Albright:  Glad to be here.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Well, I think it’s an event within itself that we’re all here on the call. These are the conversations we need to be having, and I want to make as much space for y’all to take over this livestream and share your stories and tell our audience what they most need to know about what you’re all going through, the state of things in East Palestine right now, the state of things in terms of the struggle to hold these railroad companies accountable for what they’re doing to their workers and to our communities, and what we can all do to help right now and moving forward.

But before we get there, I want to make sure that folks watching and listening can get to know our great panel again and hear more about your lives and your stories firsthand.

So I want to start with Chris and Jessica, and ask if y’all could take a few minutes to first introduce yourselves to the livestream viewers and listeners. And before we get to the derailment itself, tell us a bit about your life in East Palestine before Feb. 3. Because we don’t want people to just define you and your neighbors by this horrible thing that happened to you. We want people to remember that this was a community, and that you all are still living there trying to carry on your lives. So let’s start there, introduce yourselves, let us know more about you, and tell us about your life in East Palestine before this derailment.

Chris Albright:  I’m Chris Albright, I’m 48 years old. I’ve been living in East Palestine now for approximately nine years. I was born in PA, raised in PA, and was not sure about moving out here. But when I did, it definitely was a nice little quaint town, had a lot of nice little small-town charm to it. I work as a gas pipeliner. I have worked, I should say that. So I’ve been off work since April 13 because of the derailment, but we’ll get to that later.

Our life, I think, was pretty standard for the most part, pretty average, boring American family. We work, we come home, we have dinner, do homework, stuff like that. Again, it was pretty boring. We run the kids around a lot between gymnastics and hockey and softball and everything else they’re involved with. National Honors Society, everything like that. And like I said, it was pretty much a boring, everyday American life up until that point. Jess?

Jessica Albright:  So, I lived in East Palestine for about 20 years now, almost 18 years in the house that we’re currently in. Chris moved in about eight years ago when our daughter was born. It’s the house that I raised all my children in. At the time of the derailment, my oldest was 20, my middle daughter was 17, and our youngest was seven. Two of them have since had birthdays, so they’re now 20, 17 and eight.

Like I said, pretty average blended family with sports and school activities and multiple jobs, and just maintaining the lifestyle that we could as best we could. So the appeal of East Palestine for a lot of people that live there is the cost of living. [The cost of living] in East Palestine is significantly lower than the cost of living even a mile down the road on the Pennsylvania side of the line. Chris and I both work in Pennsylvania, but it’s a lot less expensive to live in Ohio.

So we were able to afford to allow the kids to do multiple sports, more expensive sports, that kind of stuff. So choosing to live in East Palestine because the cost of living allowed me, when my older girls were younger, to be a stay-at-home mom, raise them, I was able to maintain the bills and our house for a year as a single mom. So you can’t do that in very many other places.

So that was the appeal of living in East Palestine. Like I said, it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve been there. And the town has definitely grown on me the more I’ve been there. The kids have a huge support system in town. Parents whose children have graduated previously still volunteer with the marching band and youth sports organizations. So they’re very motivated to support the kids in our community, and I love that about the community.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah, and that’s really, really great to hear, because what I want people to really think about and remember about not just what this community is and who this community is, but what has been lost with this massive tragedy that just landed on your doorstep on Feb. 3. Not to say that life doesn’t go on and that sports don’t get played, but obviously something is very different now.

And I know I was joking with you and Chris earlier, Jess, that shuttling that many kids to that many sports is a full-time job in and of itself. I say this as one of four siblings, and we all played sports. So kudos to you guys for keeping that going.

And Jeff, I want to bring you in here and ask, again, for folks who subscribe to this channel, folks who follow The Real News, they’re going to recognize your face, they’re going to recognize your voice, because we spent all of last year, me and my colleague Mel Buer, really diving into the ongoing crisis on the freight rail system. And we were covering the high-stakes contract negotiations between the major rail carriers, that’s the companies that own the railroads, and the 12 rail unions representing over 100,000 rail workers. By that point, rail workers were three years into this contract fight.

And because of all the provisions in the Railway Labor Act, which we went over last year – If you guys want to hear all of that, I promise you there are tons of podcast interviews, YouTube interviews, text pieces that we published talking to railroad workers like Jeff from all sides of the industry. So you got a treasure trove of stuff there, and I encourage you to go check that reporting out if you want to understand how deep the crisis goes on the railroads and how long it’s been building up, and what that crisis looks like for rank-and-file workers in their day-to-day lives.

So Jeff was there with us, talking to us throughout last year, really making sure that we understood what this crisis looks like from the workers’ side, and he was hugely invaluable to making sure that our audience knew what was going on.

But Jeff, for folks who are coming to this channel fresh, maybe they haven’t dug into that stuff, I want to ask if you could just reintroduce yourself a bit to the folks watching and listening. And if you had to give a bit of a bird’s eye view, refresh our memories about how all the crap we were talking about with you and other railroad workers last year connects to the derailment of the Norfolk Southern train on Feb. 3 in East Palestine. Because it’s not like that was a freak accident. In fact, you and many other railroad workers were warning us that something like this was going to happen if nothing changed on the railroads. So tell our viewers and listeners why you guys were warning us about that. And yeah, reintroduce yourself to the folks watching.

Jeff Kurtz:  Okay. And excuse my voice, I had a bit of a virus. And as Max said, I am a 40-year veteran from first the Santa Fe railroad, and then after the merger in 1996, I worked for the BNSF until I quit. Well, I retired in 2014. And I was third generation, so I grew up with this. I’ve spent the last 70 years being immersed in rail culture.

And Max is right, this all starts with the Railway Labor Act. And railroad lawyers recently bragged about the fact that they have won every case against union lawyers for the last 33 years. And this isn’t because those guys are such bad lawyers, it’s because the arbitrators, the regulators, our politicians don’t know how railroads work. So the railroad executives can come in and speak their language.

When I was still working, when I would come in and I’d talk about drawbars and knuckles and the buff and draft forces, what we call slack in trains, it’d go over everybody’s head. But it appears that’s what happened in East Palestine, that this train was too big, it was too heavy, it was too long. And when you have problems with a train that’s that big, that size, will reduce the margin of error that you have. Anything that goes wrong can be catastrophic, and that’s basically what happened.

The Railway Labor Act manifested itself in what we did with Hi-Viz back in January of last year. The BNSF came up with this draconian policy, that eventually we lost four people, two people actually died on locomotives and two people died at home.

But what happens with the Railway Labor Act is that this stuff can take years to adjudicate. So when they came up with the attendance policy that they came up with, we had to go to court. And it was pretty obvious that the judge that presided over this had no idea how railroads worked. And he not only ruled in the carrier’s favor, he went an extra mile for them. And I mean, he forbade us from doing any kind of picketing whatsoever. And as a retiree, I could do it, but members couldn’t do that.

So from there you go into the contract fight that we had right after that. And the president set up the Presidential Emergency Board 250, and it was obvious that the three members of that board had no idea how railroads worked. And every point in PEB 250, except for one – And that was a pretty obvious one, it was about maintenance of way getting some relief as far as monetary compensation for their away-from-home lodging. But every other point in that contract either went into the carrier’s favor, or they remanded it back to the parties for negotiation after it had been negotiated for three years. Well, I mean, basically what you’re doing is taking the company’s side on that. And that was the contract that was shoved down these guys’ throats.

So it’s no wonder that rail employees, they’re so jaded. They see this stuff all the time, and they see obvious things going against them, and they see that the politicians don’t care. I think it’s not only that they don’t know, it’s they don’t want to know.

And this was bound to happen. We’ve talked about the problem with long, heavy trains. And when I read the preliminary report from the NTSB, it was pretty obvious that it was work rules, it was the fact that the train itself was run by a trip optimizer, which is kind of a cruise control, and it was some of the work rules that state that these guys are supposed to use what they call a dynamic brake, which is an electric brake that is only on the engines. So you’ve got 9,300 feet of train just doing whatever it wants to do. So it was pretty obvious, to me, what happened.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Right. And Chris, I’m just giving you a heads-up that I’m very curious to hear your thoughts on that as someone who has been doing the job that you’ve been doing, but as you mentioned, you haven’t been able to do that job because of the health effects that you’ve been experiencing after the derailment.

But you and I were talking about this earlier, about how much you guys have to invest in safety, and doing things as safely as possible, by the books, because you’re literally working in an industry where you can get killed, and people could die, and catastrophes like this can happen if you are not approaching that work with the kind of care and safety that is needed.

So to hook that to what Jeff was talking about, and to refresh folks’ memories in a quick, maybe two-minute sprint here, because what Jeff is talking about, all of these are details that we covered in depth last year when we were trying to get a handle on what the hell has happened to the railroads? Why are we seeing 1000-plus derailments of trains every year? How come these trains are getting longer and heavier to the point that they are sitting in the middle of our communities and children are having to crawl under them or through them just to get to school, ambulances and fire engines can’t get to the emergency sites that they’re dispatched to because there’s a massive train just sitting and stopped in the middle of a community like East Palestine?

Not to mention the preliminary reasons that we currently have for why the Norfolk Southern Train derailed on Feb. 3. Right now, it definitely looks like a faulty bearing that was picked up by a hotbox detector. This is a machine that is on the tracks that reads the heat that these bearings have and lets them know if there’s an ambient heat that is higher than normal.

So there’s a lot of clues here that connect to the larger narrative that we were talking about last year. And that larger picture is that, over the past few decades, the railroads, what we have seen is, at the same time, a corporate consolidation of the rail companies, and a Wall Street-minded takeover of the industry itself as that consolidation was going on. So you used to have a lot more rail lines that have been either shut down or bought up and merged into these mega rail carriers. It is not a competitive industry, these rail carriers essentially work together as an oligopolistic cartel where each rail carrier has its own portion of the country. Basically they have a captive business base where they can hike up prices on their shippers that need to use the rail lines, because you can’t just offload all of that onto the highways and in trucks, there’s a lot of freight that moves on the railroads.

So all of this is coming together over the recent decades where you see with that corporate consolidation, with that anti-competitive, cartel-like situation, with this profit-maximizing, cost-cutting philosophy that is designed to maximize shareholder and executive profits over everything else. This has taken hold of the rail industry like it’s taken hold of the healthcare industry, like it’s taken hold of consumer products and manufacturing in this country, it’s everywhere.

And we covered what it looks like for that philosophy to take hold on the railroad industry. What that looks like is, let’s cut our operating costs as much as we can year after year after year. So that means instead of running a bunch of trains, let’s run fewer mega-trains that are moving slowly, moving less freight, but costs less for us to operate. Let’s continue to cut our staff. So this has been happening across the board. The dispatchers and the dispatch office, the railroad engineers and conductors on those trains, there used to be crews of four or five people on those trains when the trains were shorter. Now the trains are longer, and there are two-person crews on those trains. And the railroad companies want to get it down to one person running a three-mile-long massive locomotive.

But also staff cuts to the maintenance of way folks, the people who actually check the track and repair the track and the bridges to make sure that trains don’t derail. You have the carmen, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, who are tasked with inspecting the railroad cars, who are also having their staffs cut, who are also being given less time to inspect rail cars, and are actually disincentivized from reporting defects with those cars because it conflicts with that profit-maximizing philosophy.

And so we’ve heard directly from carmen themselves saying, we would have caught the faulty bearing that caused the derailment in East Palestine if we actually still had rail companies that invested in railroad maintenance that kept the carmen and other areas of the railroad lines properly staffed, if we didn’t have our heads chewed off for doing our jobs.

So what you get is an increasingly exhausted, shrinking pool of workers on the railroads who are being run into the ground, who are quitting in record numbers, and who are being pushed to not do their jobs the way that they were trained to do because it conflicts with the company’s profits.

And so all of this is, I’m giving, again, just a short breakdown, but all of this converges into the perfect storm where we have these mega-trains running with few people on the cruise, with not enough people checking the track, not enough people with enough time checking the cars. The companies are trying to replace all that vital human maintenance labor and safety checks with machines like the hot box detectors that are supposed to automate those jobs, and clearly that didn’t work in East Palestine. So this is what I was trying to refresh people’s memories about, this is what Jeff is talking about.

Chris, I wanted to get your thoughts on that, coming from another industry where safety is so important. Impress upon us the kind of care that you are trained to take with the job that you do, and what it would look like if you were being told to operate under the same kinds of conditions that railroad workers are operating under. If you were being told by management like, oh, you got 30 seconds to check this thing and then move on to the next one. And if you actually report a problem, you’re going to get your head chewed off, that kind of thing.

Chris Albright:  First of all, that wouldn’t happen in my industry. Like you said, my company, we’ve gone over 5,000 days without having an accident or an incident that’s work-related in any way, shape, or form. Safety is drilled into us constantly. And like I said earlier, I’m in the natural gas industry, so you make a mistake, and people get killed. That’s as simple as it is, people can get killed if you make a mistake. You might have times where you will slow down and stop and think about the safest way to do it. And you might have a boss or somebody from the gas company come up and try to get on you a little bit about why you’re not getting stuff done, but once you explain to them that you’re doing it safely, then at the end of the day, they’re going to come up to you and thank you for taking the time to figure out how to do it safely.

And I think there’s even one of the people that works for the gas company that we work for is actually watching this too. And he’d be able to attest to it too, that at the end of the day, we all have families, we all have people that care about us, and we want to go home the same way we went to work. And it’s something that you don’t skimp on, you don’t cut corners on safety.

Hearing some of the stuff that Jeff said, and knowing some of the facts that you just said also too, it angers me a lot that these railroad companies are able to do things like this. And I’ve realized that every business that’s out there is in business to make money, I realize that. And we need the railroad industry, we need to have that. The bad thing is whenever you sacrifice safety to make profit and you endanger the lives of the railroad workers, the engineers, the towns and the communities like East Palestine, you’re not saving anything. One life lost is not worth any amount of money that you’re going to make.

And hearing a lot of this stuff and hearing how much power the railroads have, it literally angers me to know that they can get away with this kind of stuff without any repercussion, without any dent in their pocketbook, that they can still get away with this, and that they’re still doing this. And they’re still finding ways to do it at a cheaper rate, using less people, more dangerous trains, and the length of trains, and the weight of trains, and everything else that they’re doing right now, it’s not acceptable. It’s not. You’re affecting a lot of people’s lives doing this.

Us, for example, our lives have been turned upside down by this. And it really does infuriate me to hear a lot of this stuff. And like I said, with my job, safety is always number one. We have four core values in our company, and the first one is safety first and foremost. That is the first thing, we go over that every single day of the week, safety first and foremost. And when you hear of companies like Norfolk Southern who are making all these cutbacks and doing all these things that aren’t safe and that are hurting people, there’s no excuse for it, none.

Maximillian Alvarez:  I think that’s beautifully and powerfully put. Jeff, did you have any thoughts on that?

Jeff Kurtz:  Well, from what Chris was saying, we used to be like that. In fact, the first rule in our rule book is safety is the first importance in the discharge of your duty. Then the hedge funds got ahold of the railroads, and this was the downfall of all this. It started with Canadian National and Hunter Harrison, he started running these monster trains, and now they all do it. They run these two-mile and three-mile-long trains, don’t care about safety whatsoever. In fact, the day before East Palestine, I was talking to a friend of mine, I went out to eat – And he still works in the railroad. And he was telling me about all the unplanned train separations that they have nowadays. And all an unplanned train separation is, is you tearing a train apart, you ripping the knuckle up or pulling the drawbar out and the train comes apart. All that is a prelude to a derailment.

And we talked about that. And I said, how many of those are you having, Casey? And he says,iIt seems like we have one a day. We used to have about three of those a year. And it’s simply because they don’t care. I think they’ve reasoned that it’s cheaper to break a three-mile-long train apart than to run a one-mile train that gets to its destination in six hours. So it’s a business model, it works for the short-term for these people. And when you get hedge funds involved, that’s always what it’s about, the short term. But the long-term health of the industry, it’s just never going to work.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Mm-hmm (affirmative). Exactly. And the other thing that I failed to mention about how the catastrophe in East Palestine and the things that contributed to the derailment directly connect to the larger story of the corporate capture, consolidation, and Wall Street-ification of the rail industry, Jeff already mentioned earlier some of the regulation sides. Basically, the way that that monster has captured the regulatory bodies that are supposed to make these rail companies abide by the law, that are supposed to examine their practices and tell them when and if they’re doing things that are dangerous.

So the one that Jeff mentioned was the brakes. This is something that came up a lot after East Palestine, was, how could a train this long carrying this much hazardous material be using Civil War-era braking systems? Because what that means is that the kind of brakes that you have are going to stop at the front and they’re going to go car by car by car instead of having all of them with an electrical braking system being applied across all of the rail cars at once.

So obviously, if you have a longer train and a heavier train and you apply this Civil War-era braking system, you’re going to jackknife, you’re going to have all that force coming from the cars in the back running up against the cars at the front that are stopping, and you’re going to see what you saw in East Palestine, which is the train breaking apart and spilling out over the tracks.

Then the question came, it was, well, how come these companies are not required to have this more modern braking system? Well, that’s when you get into the corporate capture, the lobbying, the pressure that’s put on bought-off politicians to look the other way, yada, yada, yada. So that’s part of the story too.

But I want to bring all of that back down to eye level, and I want us all to remember what the human stakes and costs of all of this are, because we have those people on the call right now. And I want to turn it back over to Jess and Chris, and ask if you could take us back to the night of the derailment and the days after. Let’s remind people and communicate to them from your vantage point what it was like to live through that, what you remember from that night on Feb. 3, and what you think people need to hear and remember about what you all and your neighbors were going through that night and in the days following the derailment on Feb. 3.

So Jess, let’s start with you. And Chris, please hop in when she’s done.

Jessica Albright:  So it was a normal Friday night, a high school basketball game was happening in town. I had just gotten back home from picking my middle daughter up from the high school, she’s a high school cheerleader. So I picked her up from the game, we had just gotten home. I was nagging my youngest child to get her pajamas on, start getting ready for bed. My oldest daughter was at work a couple towns over. And then Lainy, my middle daughter, she started to see on Snapchat some photos and videos that her friends were posting about a train accident, and that was all we knew at first. So our initial concern was that it was maybe one of the students driving around town after the game, certainly it was our prayer that it was not.

So a little while later we finally discovered that it was “just” a derailment, because derailments happen all the time, they’re not typically a big deal. A train comes off the tracks, they put it back on, life goes on. I didn’t think much of it until we started hearing sirens. I went to take the dogs out for their last round to go potty. When I went outside, the smell was horrific, I could see the smoke from… We use our back door, so around the corner of the house, looking in that direction, you could see the billowing black smoke and a tower of flames shooting above the houses in front of where we live. So that was when we realized that it was much closer to our house than we had thought, because we didn’t hear anything initially, our house is brick and we do live a couple blocks back from the tracks.

So smelling it and seeing it, then I realized how close it was and maybe how significant it was in that aspect. So I took the dogs back into the house, told Chris to go look out that window that’s right behind his head, it’s our dining room window. If you look out that window, you could see the smoke and the flames just billowing from the derailment. But again, we didn’t think much of it. We thought, they’ll take care of it. We heard all the fire trucks coming into town.

And then I would say maybe an hour later, it was somewhere after 10:00 PM, the local police showed up and said they were evacuating a one-mile radius because they were fearful of explosions. They said they had some minor explosions already, and they feared larger ones. Because some people may not realize, where the train derailed was just literal feet from our town gas station. So there were tens of thousands of gallons of gasoline in tanks sitting just a couple hundred feet from where this train was on fire. So there was legitimate concern that there could be larger explosions.

Again, it’s 10:00 at night, after 10:00. We have two dogs and a cat. Chris decided to stay home with the animals, and then if anything got worse or seemed like it was going in worse of a direction, he would throw them in his work truck and get out. I called my sister, and I took the two younger girls to her house for the night. And my oldest daughter, she couldn’t get back into town anyway when she got off work, so she went and stayed with her boyfriend’s family that night.

So there wasn’t a whole lot. We stayed on social media trying to keep track of what was going on, monitoring things. Saturday throughout the day, the smoke seemed to be dying down a little bit, the flames weren’t as intense. There wasn’t any talk at that point about toxic chemicals or anything, nobody was saying anything about what was burning. So Chris thought it was fine to be home, stayed there all day Saturday. And then Sunday morning, my daughter texted me and said that neighbors of ours a few blocks down had been told that they needed to evacuate.

So I called Chris and he said, yeah, they had shown back up Sunday morning and said, we can’t force you to leave physically, but you need to get out. They said, if it gets any worse, we’re not coming back. So I told Chris at that point, I said, they’re not going to go through the trouble of re-evacuating or doing another push for evacuation if there’s not something more serious going on, or if they’re planning on bringing us back anytime soon. So he said, yeah, you’re probably right. So I drove home to get the animals in my vehicle, grab a few more changes of clothes for me and the girls, and he packed up his stuff into his work truck that he would need for work for the weekend, or for the beginning of the week.

And as soon as I drove into town and as soon as I walked into the house, I immediately had a burning throat, my head was pounding within 10 minutes. And I said, how have you been sitting here all weekend smelling that? And he said, I don’t smell anything. He was nose blind from having been there throughout the entire thing. And I think, long-term, that’s happened to a lot of people who are in town. We have visitors who come from out of town and they’ll smell things, and the people that live there don’t smell it because we’re immune to it and we’re nose blind, whatever you want to call it.

So yeah, Sunday morning, Chris came to my sister’s with us, and that’s where we stayed. She lives about a 15-minute drive into Pennsylvania. So that was the night of, the weekend of.

Maximillian Alvarez:  And then Chris, pick it up from there, man. Anything else you want to fill in from that immediate moment from the derailment, or keep us going on into the controlled release and the hell that broke loose after that?

Chris Albright:  Well, I think Jess really summed it up by saying all that. She hit all the key points on that, when it happened that Friday night, it was just the train derailment like, oh, wow, look at that. And again, it was right after a basketball game, so we were really hoping it didn’t involve any of the kids from the basketball game or their families. And yeah, the cops came to the house and said they were evacuating, and I stayed here just like she said. I got a little bit worried whenever the cop did come on Sunday and said, if it gets bad, we’re not coming back.

So again, we went and we stayed. And I didn’t know nothing even at that point in time about the toxic chemicals that much. I didn’t know a whole lot about it, but I heard something. On Monday they had, and you use the quotation marks, “controlled release,” which is a load of crap because there was nothing controlled about that, except for they let them off. A controlled burn and all that other stuff is when you regulate the oxygen, the igniter, everything like that, that wasn’t what this was.

But my youngest daughter had hockey practice that night, and we were 20, 25 minutes away. And I was driving back to my sister and brother-in-law’s house, and you could see just how black the sky was in the direction of where we lived. It was very ominous. At that point, they ignited those cars. And I can’t fault the fire chief for anything because he didn’t know what he was setting off. He didn’t know what was in the cars, he didn’t know how many cars he was doing at the time, they didn’t tell him anything.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Right. I think the recent hearings showed that the fire marshal was given 13 minutes by Norfolk Southern –

Chris Albright:  13 minutes. Correct, yes.

Maximillian Alvarez:  …To make a call on whether or not to allow the controlled release of five cars worth of toxic vinyl chloride to be basically emptied into a ditch and lit on fire.

Chris Albright:  And you think about that –

Jessica Albright:  To add to that… Sorry, I just gotta say, to add to that, somebody at Norfolk Southern was aware that the company who owns the vinyl chloride said that the cars were cooling, there was no imminent danger. That information was not relayed to our fire chief. So had that information been given to the people on the ground making the decisions, there may have been a different decision made. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but that seems like vital information to me. The people who know vinyl chloride, understand its makeup and its components and its behaviors, they say there’s no threat, that information was not related to the people that needed it.

Chris Albright:  And keep in mind that our fire department down here is all volunteers, there’s no professionals. Not saying they’re not professional, I’m just saying that they’re all volunteers down here. It’s a small town, a small community, these are volunteers doing the best they could with that.

So after the burnoff of that, the igniting of that, that was on Monday. By Wednesday, we were told we can come back to our homes, which we were grateful for, we were excited to, and we really thought everything was going to be great. We thought that we can get back to our lives again. And since then, it has definitely not gone that way at all.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Well, let’s talk about that, because I know I can’t keep you guys for too long, we got about 15 minutes left here. I want to give people a sense of the Kafkaesque nightmare that y’all have been living in, the limbo that you’ve been left in over the past eight months. Because we’ve talked about this together, I’ve talked with your neighbors here on The Real News and on my show about how you’re getting the runaround, you’re being told like, oh, it’s safe to go back to your homes. And then you walk back in and you get a bloody nose, a pounding headache, diarrhea, you can’t feel your own mouth. And you’re like, well, it doesn’t feel like I’m safe here. And they’re like, no, no, no, you’re fine, you’re fine. Or I’ve talked to residents who were waiting for months to get results on whether or not their wells were safe to drink the water from, or if the soil that your kids are playing in is going to give your kids cancer moving forward.

This is what I’m talking about here, we’re talking about real serious and dangerous stuff. And folks like Chris and Jessica have been getting conflicting answers from the local EPA, from the state government, from Norfolk Southern. Or they’re being told that everything’s fine when they can feel in their bodies that it’s not fine. And so you get this Orwellian sort of thing where you’re being told everything’s cool, but you’re literally feeling the effects of something, and no one’s helping you, no one’s giving you the test results that you need.

Norfolk Southern basically drew a one-mile circumference around the crash site and was like, okay, we’ll pay for people to get hotels who are living in this area. But if you are on the other side of the street from that, even though the same toxic plume is hovering above your head, we’re not going to help you.

And even then, maybe Norfolk Southern doesn’t reimburse you for your hotel, because that’s expensive. Living in a hotel for six, seven, eight months, that racks up. So if Norfolk Southern’s not paying that or if the officials are giving you crap, this is just a small snapshot.

And I wanted to turn things back over to you guys and ask, we can’t go through all the eight months, but what do you think people need to know about what you and your neighbors have been going through in that eight months, what help have you been getting or not getting while the news media has forgotten about y’all? What do you think people really need to remember about what you’re going through right now?

Chris Albright:  Well, some of this stuff, as far as the health and everything goes, almost all of us have developed something. I’ve always been a very active, physically fit guy all my life, I’ve always done sports and stayed pretty fit my whole life. Since the derailment, I have been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and severe heart failure. My heart is working, I have a 16% ejection fraction, and you guys can look that up if you’d like to. But basically it was told to me that if your heart is a 10-valve engine, I’m working off of one valve right now. My heart is very weak, and it was never like this before. Now, none of the doctors have been able to say that it’s because of that or that it’s not because of that, they can’t pinpoint that, but I just know that I was fine before this.

Our middle daughter, she’s actually sitting here right now. So if you guys want to get another perspective, she said she’d come on if you’d like to hear from her. But she was getting nosebleeds within minutes of walking in this house. And we lived in a hotel, you spoke about that, we lived in a hotel for over four months. And yes, Norfolk Southern did pay for the hotel and they paid for our meals, but living in a hotel, having three people and two dogs for four months, is not a vacation. Eating out all the time is not good. We got so tired of eating out, we just wanted to make our own meals. I actually went and found an inexpensive griddle I bought at a grocery store, and I was able to cook some meals at the hotel, but not everything.

Our hotel bill came to almost, I think, $22,000. I’m sure Jess will correct me on that, but I think it was around $22,000. But during that time, we still had bills, we still had car payments and phone payments and electric and gas and everything else, we had to pay for the house here that we weren’t even staying in. My savings dwindled down to $21 for paying for the stuff in the house that we couldn’t even use at the time. So the financial impact of this whole thing – And like I said, I still have not been back to work since April 13. I’ve not been back to work. I need to go back to work, and I can’t yet. And money’s going to run out here on us very soon. And that’s going to be another hurdle we’re going to have to face due to Norfolk Southern’s lack of safety, basically. And would you guys like to hear anything from our middle daughter?

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah, I was going to say, why don’t we go to Jessica, anything you want to add to what y’all have been living through since then, and then we’ll cut back to y’all’s daughter after you’re done.

Chris Albright:  Make sure you’re in the center of the frame.

Jessica Albright:  Yeah. Since then, so Lainy’s nosebleeds, which she’ll talk about a little bit, those were Memorial Day, those were in February, those were the last week of school. As you said, we were living in a hotel for four months. My kids are going stir-crazy. I mean, these kids have lived through COVID.

Maximillian Alvarez:  That’s a lot. I can’t imagine how they’re dealing with all of this.

And please, Lainy, if you want to hop in, please introduce yourself to the folks watching, and tell us a little bit from your perspective of what life’s been like for you since this derailment happened. And you could say as much or as little as you want, don’t feel pressured, just anything you think that folks need to know.

Lainy:  I know, I don’t… I’m so bad. I don’t know. Every time I came home, it would be for five minutes to an hour before school, I’d get a nosebleed within two minutes of being home. And it wasn’t just a small, I don’t know, couple of drops of blood. It was gushing blood every time, filling the sink with blood.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Lainy, I don’t know if you’d be comfortable talking about it, but your mom was just saying you guys already went through COVID, and then you got to deal with this. But you’re also still, you’re trying to live your life. How are you managing with all of this crap that’s just been dumped on you? Are you still able to live your life a bit, do you feel like life’s just been perpetually put on hold?

Lainy:  Right now It’s gotten back to normal almost, but for those first four months, five months, it basically was like COVID again. I was away from my friends all the time and missing out on everything in school and stuff like that. I still haven’t had a normal year of high school yet, and I’m going to graduate in May.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Wow. But wait, didn’t Norfolk Southern fund your guys’ prom or something, isn’t that their way of making up for this [laughs]?

Lainy:  I don’t think it was prom, but they did give us a lot of money.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah. Well, I just joke, because I know that they’re dumping a bunch of money into the aquatic center in East Palestine, which is great. Sure, who doesn’t love a good aquatic center? But like, there’s a lot of other stuff we need help with right now.

Jessica Albright:  And we already have a pool in town, and it’s a pretty nice pool, I don’t know that it needs to be fully replaced. I don’t think it requires $25 million worth of renovations and add-ons, but that’s my opinion.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah, exactly. Who can say at this point, right?

Well, I want us to come back and round out by talking about where things are now and what folks can do to help. But before we get there, Jeff, I wanted to ask you the same question about how things have been since the derailment, because we also have storylines that are intersecting with this.

We all know, like you said, that the contract fight between the rail unions and the rail carriers crescendoed last year with scab Joe Biden and both parties in Congress conspiring to shove a contract down rail workers’ throats that they did not want, effectively giving the rail carriers everything that they wanted, giving them the green light to continue with their greedy cost-cutting, profit-maximizing practices, so on and so forth. So that’s how the big contract fight concluded at the end of last year.

But I know that that’s not where the story ends. To his credit, I suppose, I know that the Biden administration has been still working to try to get paid sick days for rail workers, because that was a big part of the contract fight last year. The problems were much bigger than sick days, but everyone got focused on the sick days.

So I know that that’s been an ongoing side of the story, the legislative side to pass the bipartisan Railway Safety Act. At first it seemed like, hey, maybe this is… I mean, yeah, you got, what? Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance coming together saying that they really care about passing this legislation. And yet here we are, it’s not passed, it feels like the rail carriers are coming in with their lobbyists and watering it down.

So I was wondering if you could give us an update on the railroaders’ side of what has happened since the East Palestine disaster, if anything?

Jeff Kurtz:  Well, actually, and this was pretty easy to predict, the railroads have been good for a while because everybody’s watching them. But as soon as they quit watching them, they’re going to go back to their old tricks. In fact, they’ll try something else. And so nothing’s really changed, we’ve just put a lot of this stuff off into the future. And I’ve got a few suggestions that I would like to see implemented. They talk about the new legislation. Why don’t we enforce the provisions of the old legislation, the Rail Safety Improvement Act from 2008? There’s still provisions from that that they haven’t enforced for 15 years.

And I want to go back to something that you talked about, about the new braking system. A three-mile-long train is not safe, I don’t care what kind of braking system that you have, because of the fact that even when you’re not braking, you still get the end-train forces. There needs to be a length and a weight limit on these trains, that’s the only way you’re going to make them safe.

And the FRA, the Federal Railroad Administration, probably should start looking at unplanned train separations. They don’t look at that, which really surprises me. Like I said, an unplanned train separation is nothing but a prelude to a derailment. And I know that, talking with the members in this area, they’ve been having a lot of those. And it’s only a matter of time before something like East Palestine or even worse happens again.

What I would like to see in legislation, and I’ll go back to a quote that I heard just, oh God, this was a couple of weeks ago, that a fine for a crime is nothing but punishment to the poor. And I’m not saying that they shouldn’t fine these people, but I think that there should be personal responsibility taken too. That if corporate executives have acted in an irresponsible manner, like NS officials did, they should be subject to prison time. Because I can guarantee you, if that train crew would’ve taken that train in the ditch at 70 miles an hour, everybody on that head end would be in jail right now. So what’s good for us should be good for them.

Another thing that I’d like to see is some kind of corporate death penalty, when they do something like this, look at dissolving the corporation, have maybe the government run the railroad, but then partition off the assets to people like we have on this broadcast so they can restart their lives. That’s only fair because, like I said, what they did was totally irresponsible. If somebody got drunk and took their car and ran into a gas station, killed a bunch of people because they ran into some pumps, they wouldn’t let that person go because of the fact that they didn’t try to do that, they would prosecute him because he was irresponsible. These people were irresponsible, and there’s been no penalty for that irresponsibility. So, end of rant.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Oh, it was a great rant, brother. And just real quick, by way of closing out, Jeff, I saw the look on your face when I mentioned Biden’s efforts to secure more sick days for railroad workers, I just wanted to ask if you had any f thoughts on that. And also, I know that, as I said earlier, by the time we got to the point, this time last year, because I think it was, what, Sept. 14 when we were approaching the end of the cooling-off period where a rail strike or a rail lockout could legally begin under the provisions of the Railway Labor Act, by that point, we were three years into the contract negotiations with the rail carriers and the rail unions.

Again, because labor relations on the railroads are not governed by the National Labor Relations Act, like most jobs, they’re governed by a separate set of laws and rules to basically prevent workers from striking, to protect the supply chain, yada, yada, yada. That’s why workers were working under an expired contract for three years, that’s why we had all these extra provisions like the Presidential Emergency Board and the cooling-off periods and all that stuff.

So this time last year, we were at the precipice of a potential rail strike for the first time since the ’90s. And suddenly everyone was like, wait, where did this come from? Why is this happening? And people were learning very quickly what the issues on the railroads were. But like I said, by that point, we were three years into the contract fight, we were closer to the next contract bargaining session than we were from the beginning of the previous one. So here we are in October of 2023, we are about a year and a half away from the next bargaining period. So I wanted to ask A, yeah, why you rolled your eyes when I mentioned Biden and the sick days? And B, what you would say to people out there who got invested in the railroaders’ struggle from the workers’ side last year about what we need to be prepared for looking ahead to 2025?

Jeff Kurtz:  Well, what I would like to see people do is go to the politicians and tell them that they need to educate themselves on these issues. I mean, these are important issues. They need to pick regulators that have experience in this field. The last guy I knew that had any experience was Joe Szabo back in the Obama administration, he was a switchman from Illinois. But generally, we had Sarah Feinberg that succeeded him, she talked about the fact that she was worried about long trains, and those trains were 80 or 90 cars. Well, I got news from Mrs. Feinberg. The trains that they were running during her era, I was still working, they were three miles long, which is about twice or more of what she was talking about. So we need regulators and people in those positions that know what they’re talking about. And we need arbitrators that understand the rail industry. It’s just incredible that we get people that make these decisions that have… They have no idea what they’re doing. So that’s the best outcome that I can see. Right now I’m just sitting around waiting for another East Palestine to happen, because I don’t see anything on the horizon that gives me any hope.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Well, I think that’s a really sobering but necessary point to drive home here at the end. And I want to take that as an opportunity to toss things back to Chris and Jessica. And with the final couple minutes that we’ve got, can you guys tell us a bit about where things are now for you, your family, your community, what folks out there watching and listening can do to help right now, and what we can do to help as a community? As a community of workers, of residents, what we can do moving forward to help y’all now and to make sure that this doesn’t happen again? What do you guys need? What do you want to leave people with?

Jessica Albright:  I would like to piggyback on Jeff’s safety stuff real quick. One other thing that really ticks me off is that these trains fly through these towns and nobody knows what’s on these trains. So it took way too long for our first responders to know what they were dealing with. There were responders from over 60 different departments from the Tri-state area that responded, who blindly came in with no proper PPE, breathing these fumes, no clue what they were dealing with and what they were working with for probably, I don’t know how long they had to go, because they had to figure out what was on the train, what cars were on fire, so what was being burned, they didn’t know. My dad was a volunteer fireman my entire life, so that pisses me off.

Chris Albright:  I’ll say that it’s definitely refreshing to hear Jeff speak, and speak so passionately about some of the issues with the railroad workers, but it also infuriates me that nothing’s being done, they’re not doing anything about anything. Max, I know I’ve heard you talk before, this can happen again tomorrow. This can happen at any time, anywhere, because nothing is being done about it. And that there is ridiculous, something needs to be done about this. The things that have gone on since this derailment is… I can’t even explain it, it’s ridiculous. Something should have been done before this. Now that this happened, they got to find a way to fix this, to correct this, to make sure it’s not going to happen again, and nobody’s doing anything.

And as far as us being residents of a town like this, we still haven’t gotten answers. We still don’t know where to go for help. We don’t know who we can go to, who we can trust, what can be done, nothing. We’ve gotten nothing from anybody. And –

Jessica Albright:  EPA announced today that it’s safe to plant in our soil again.

Chris Albright:  I ain’t doing it. I’m not doing it. And look, we have a little garden on the side of our house, I’m not planting anything in there, you’re crazy. There’s no way I’m doing that. Trusting these government agencies and everything, the EPA and all, what do we do? We’re still left here without answers, without solutions, without anything to go on. What do we do? There are –

Jessica Albright:  Chris, just an example for why we don’t trust the EPA for those. We were cleaning out the house, we had gotten a dumpster to get rid of a bunch of stuff from our house. And a guy with a handheld monitor was driving around in his car. He stopped next to our house while Chris was out there. So Chris gave him the, can I help you? kind of look. And he said, oh, I’m just getting an elevated reading right here. Elevated reading of what? What are you getting a reading of? How high is it? Is it something I should be concerned about?

Had Chris not been out there, we wouldn’t have known that there was an elevated reading of anything because that information is not relayed back to us. And I don’t know if it’s just something that’s not significant, or is it something we should be worried about? And we didn’t find out until The New York Times article came out that the week that Chris got violently and deathly ill, they were getting elevated readings outside of our house during that week. Nobody notified us, we were not able to make any educated decisions on our own.

Maximillian Alvarez:  That is unbelievable and unforgivable, I cannot emphasize that enough. I don’t want to get… I can go off on a huge rant here, but you guys know why this is unforgivable. This is unconscionable. And again, we all have a stake in doing something about this. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something here. So whether it is reaching out to your local officials, reaching out to your media sources and asking them to continue covering this, putting pressure on folks in positions of power so that the residents in and around East Palestine get the answers they’re looking for, get the aid they desperately need, so companies like Norfolk Southern are actually held accountable, so that we actually take tangible steps on the governmental side to regulate these companies, to stop these corporate practices that are endangering all of our communities. That’s where we are.

The latest updates from last month are that Biden finally, seven months after the derailment, issued an executive order to place a FEMA disaster relief coordinator on the ground in East Palestine. So better late than never, I guess, but where the fuck you been? – Pardon my French. Sorry, I didn’t mean to swear. But where have you been for the past seven months?

Jessica Albright:  And that guy’s going to get his information from EPA who hasn’t been, you know?

Maximillian Alvarez:  Right.

Jessica Albright:  Where’s he getting his information? So how reliable is it going to be?

Maximillian Alvarez:  Right. So yeah, exactly, what are we going to get? We’re just going to have to wait another year just to get a report saying like, oh yeah, you’re all fine. While Chris continues to not be able to go to work because his heart is barely functioning right now. This is insane to me.

And I wanted to say one tangible thing, because we’ve talked about what needs to happen on the grander scale of the companies, on the government side, but I know that folks watching and listening, they also want to help right now. So the two things that I would urge you guys to do is, one, share this livestream with as many people as you can, share The New York Times profile on the Albrights with everyone that you can.

But also, I’m going to say it for them because I know it’s not easy to put this out there, but I really want our folks watching and listening to know that there is a GoFundMe that you can contribute to help the Albrights with the costs that they have been racking up. That’s not a long-term solution, but it is a tangible way that if you’re watching this and you are moved to help, you can help them do something right now. And so Chris, Jessica, is it okay if I ask you guys if you could just let people know what the name of that is or where they could find it?

Jessica Albright:  I know there’s a link to it at the bottom of The New York Times article. I’m not sure where else to find it, to be honest.

Maximillian Alvarez:  No, that’s totally cool. So what we will do is, for those watching the livestream, again, just Google Chris and Jessica Albright New York Times. You can find the link to that GoFundMe at the bottom of the article. And once we are done with this livestream, we will also, for everyone watching, we will post a link to that GoFundMe in the description to this YouTube video so that you can find it as well. So I just wanted to say that if there’s something immediate you want to do, that’s something that you can do. And also, please make sure as many people as possible hear this conversation, because they need to hear this conversation.

So with that, I think we can close. I’ve kept you guys long enough. I cannot thank you enough for giving us this much of your time, for sharing your story so openly with us, even though I know it’s incredibly difficult. And I just want to say from all of us here at The Real News and everyone watching that we are sorry you are going through this, you do not deserve this, and we will stand with you to the bitter end. We will not forget about you and your neighbors.

And Jeff, the same goes for you and everyone working on the railroads, we will continue to cover this until we actually see change. And we all have a stake as regular working people in making that change happen. So go out, do something.

And thank you once again to our incredible panelists. We had Chris and Jessica Albright today, two residents of East Palestine, and retired railway engineer and former Iowa State representative Jeff Kurtz. Chris, Jessica, Jeff, thank you so much again for joining us today on The Real News Network. I really, really appreciate it.

Chris Albright:  Thank you for having us. Thank you, Jeff. Thank you for keeping the spotlight on this. It’s really much appreciated.

Jessica Albright:  Thank you.

Maximillian Alvarez:  And thank you all for watching.

Chris Albright:  Yeah, thank you, Max.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Oh, thank you man. And thank you all for watching, thank you for caring. Please, before you go, subscribe to our YouTube channel so you never miss a show, donate to The Real News so we can keep bringing y’all important coverage and conversations just like this. Take care of yourselves, take care of each other, solidarity forever.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
Follow: @maximillian_alv