“Superfund for Workers”: East Palestine Raises Questions of Worker Displacement

East Palestine disaster raises questions about how government deals with worker displacement caused by chemical disaster (AP)

BRIDGEPORT, OHIO – On Wednesday, former President Donald Trump visited nearby East Palestine, Ohio, to argue that the federal government had betrayed people there affected by the derailment of a toxic chemical train. Trump and others have argued that the decision to burn the chemical trains in order to open up the railway created the chemical equivalent of Chernobyl for the surrounding community. 

While touring East Palestine, Trump argued that the federal government failed to meet the needs of workers in the area, many of whom were displaced from their homes and jobs by the health crisis caused by the derailment. Trump repeatedly argued that the decision by the federal government to allow for a controlled burn of the train devastated the community. 

“In too many cases, your goodness and perseverance were met with indifference and betrayal,” said Trump. 

With the economy of East Palestine suffering, some like Jordan Barab, who served as Deputy OSHA Director under Obama, say that Democrats must use this moment to enact government program that protect workers and communities devastated by environmental catastrophes.

“We’re likely to see more of them and we’re likely to see even worse ones,” says Barab. “There’s not really any national plan to address these problems and particularly to address the people that are most impacted by these disasters.”

Barab says that now is the time for Democrats in Congress to go bold. 

“We need some kind of “Superfund for People,” says Barab, referencing the landmark EPA fund that has helped clean up over 40,000 toxic industrial sites. “Basically, we need something that will take care of people, take care of cleaning, not only cleaning up their land, but their water and their air, but also if there are dislocations, either from employment or from their homes.”

Superfund works by forcing companies responsible for chemical disasters to pay into a trust fund. Sometimes it can take years of legal action to get companies to pay what they owe into the Superfund. By creating a trust fund of money from previous legal action, a Superfund creates a ready pool of money that can be deployed to help communities affected by toxic chemical disasters created by industry.  

Barab says that something similar is needed to help workers and communities negatively affected by disasters like East Palestine. However, there is likely heavy opposition to the creation of such a fund. 

“If Congress were to get its act together and try to pass something like this, you would have business opposition to anything that would require them to contribute to this kind of fund,” says Barab. 

Experts say that now is the time for Democrats and organized labor to push for the creation of such a fund. Following the unpopular implementation by Congress and the Biden Administration of a railroad contract that union members voted down and contained no paid sick days, many in the country began to pay attention to the safety crisis caused by overwork and fatigue in our nation’s railways. 

“There’s something that’s different about East Palestine from other pollution events,” says Jacob Remes, a disaster and labor historian at NYU. “And I think part of that is the work that that rail unions did, for the past several months that raised awareness about how rail workers are increasingly being treated. And so I think, like people were thinking about rail work and rail labor differently and more than they had before.”

While corporate forces opposed to creating a fund will be challenging to overcome, worker advocates say now is the perfect time for Democrats and their allies in organized labor to push for such a fund. If they otherwise fail to act, people such as former President Trump and his Republican allies will continue to blame Democrats for destroying the livelihoods of so many in East Palestine, Ohio. 

“As they say:never let a disaster go to waste,” says Obama-era deputy OSHA head Jordan Barab. “So, there’s every reason to use this time now to really push now.”

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing over 1,800 stories from 46 states, Elk was the only American reporter in the room with Lula on the morning of the election & traveled with him to the Oval Office. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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