At Indiana University, I teach government to students in one school, and speech to students in another. The subjects are quite different, as are the students. But the story of East Palestine, Ohio gives me a real life lesson to teach both classes and will for years to come.
On February 3, a train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed near the village in northeastern Ohio. Five cars containing vinyl chloride, were among twenty derailed cars that contained hazardous substances.
East Palestine is a “village,” which features a council-manager type government in Ohio. It is near the Pennsylvania border and is forty miles closer to Pittsburgh than Cleveland. It has a little less than five thousand residents, is 98.5% white, has a median family income of about $40,000 per year, and its population last showed growth in the census of 1970. Thank you Wikipedia.
On February 6, three days after the derailment, Norfolk Southern performed a controlled detonation of the cars containing vinyl chloride, a chemical that is used in the manufacturing of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC pipes, and other plastics. Train company officials claim the detonation was executed “perfectly,” though footage of the dark cloud rising from it scream anything but perfect.
CNN has an excellent timeline of the events. When I worked for state government years ago, I was a regulator and communicator. Timelines like these make me want to come out of retirement.
Value of regulation
The first question this disaster asks is regarding the value of regulation. I often ask my students: Do regulated industries ever enjoy or prefer being regulated? Answer: Absolutely. Regulation usually exists where a true market doesn’t. True markets are less tolerant of bad companies than regulation is. The railroad industry, in its most competitive sense is an oligopoly. In many places, it’s a monopoly. That’s the primary reason for the heavy regulation. Norfolk Southern won’t be bankrupted or dissolved over this. Regulation will see to that.
Second question: Does regulation bring significant costs to industries? Answer: Absolutely. But true markets do too. Railroads are regulated, and so are manufacturers of toxic chemicals for different reasons. Small-government conservatives often complain about the heavy hand of regulation, its costs, and its interference with “freedom.” That makes for good politics in certain circles, until events like this happen.
Regulation is usually needed most right before catastrophes like this one. Right afterward, a comprehensive review of how to better regulate often ensues, platform politics be damned.
I have watched and read interviews from citizens and seen footage from public meetings that show angry and confused people behaving in a completely predictable way. Their reaction to the crisis has been profoundly normal, as has the government’s.
What’s been abnormal? When Norfolk Southern rescinded its commitment to attend a town meeting at a high school gym on February 15 was when I first thought, “uh-oh.” Yes, I understand how security issues in these sorts of circumstances exist. But I have been the most unpopular person in a high school gym full of angry people. Showing up is often uncomfortable, even scary, but there was never a time when I was in that hot seat when I thought not showing up would have been the better option.
Whatever it took, Norfolk Southern should not have cancelled their commitment to be there that night. They won’t get a better chance to empathize with this community, ever. And it’s easy to have empathy for them. I teach my students about communicating to hostile crowds, and how they are my favorite crowds. What!? Why!? I explain that real empathy is powerful. Starting the communication with empathy helps solutions become visible and allows relationships to grow. Again, it should be easy, since Norfolk Southern should be mad and scared in this moment too.
On February 21st, the company said, “We recognize that we have a responsibility, and we have committed to doing what’s right for the residents of East Palestine.” That should have been said, along with repetitive heartfelt apologies in that gym six days earlier. The person saying it should have been the last person out of the gym that night. It should have been clear that the company felt the village’s pain.
I was a utility regulator. I was the communicator for the agency, and I almost exclusively delivered bad news. I used to dream the opposite were true. The cheers, “Hooray for regulation!” never come in real life. Like train derailments, power outages continue to prosper.
Taking care of this village and its people should be the uninterrupted priority for a large group of stakeholders for the foreseeable future. Everyone watching this experience from near and far, should absorb the lessons it’s teaching about governing and communicating. With empathy.