Feb 27, 2023

The cause of the East Palestine train crash.

Drone footage of the controlled burn in East Palestine. Image: Photography Matters LLC Facebook page
Drone footage of the controlled burn in East Palestine. Image: Photography Matters LLC Facebook page

Plus, I answer reader feedback about my piece on Fox News.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering the East Palestine train crash with our normal format. Plus, I respond to some reader feedback about Friday's edition on Fox News. 

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Fox News.

On Friday, we released a subscribers-only piece titled "Fox News gets caught." The piece generated an enormous amount of feedback, some of which I am going to reply to today. We’re keeping this edition behind a paywall because we have unlocked so many of our Friday pieces recently, but I do encourage you to subscribe and go read it if you haven't yet. I'll note that, as I expected, we lost some subscribers following this edition, but (as you'll see in my responses) I stand wholeheartedly by our coverage. So if you want to offset some of that loss of readership or if you’re curious to see what the fuss was about, now is a great time to subscribe or drop something in the tip jar to support our work.

Quick hits.

  1. The U.S. Energy Department says it has concluded the most likely origin of Covid-19 was a lab leak, although it made the determination with "low confidence." The FBI has come to a similar conclusion. Four other federal agencies have concluded it occurred naturally, and two are undecided. (The report)
  2. On Sunday, a Palestinian gunman killed two Israelis in the West Bank. Separately, leaders from Israel and the Palestinian Authority met alongside international representatives to commit to de-escalating tensions. (The meeting)
  3. The Republican National Committee says it will require presidential candidates who want to participate in primary debates to sign a pledge of loyalty to the party's eventual nominee. (The pledge)
  4. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators hit the streets across Mexico to protest the government's effort to cut salaries and funding for local election officials. (The demonstrations)
  5. At least 59 migrants traveling from Turkey drowned on Sunday while trying to land on Italy's southeastern coast. (The tragedy)

Today's topic.

The cause of the East Palestine, Ohio, crash. We covered the story of East Palestine (pronounced “palace-teen”) in a special Friday edition, which included original reporting on what happened there. Since then, residents living within 30 miles of the crash have filed a class-action lawsuit, and both former President Trump and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have visited the area.

Refresher: On February 3, a train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, a town of roughly 4,700 people just 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. 38 cars were derailed, including 11 that were carrying hazardous materials. When first responders arrived on the scene, they noticed one of the cars was releasing vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical used to make polyvinyl chloride, a compound used in a number of plastic products like pipes and packaging material.

Residents were evacuated when some of the cars caught fire. On February 5, more residents were forced to leave after officials made the decision to execute a controlled burn, worried that one of the cars was going to explode. On February 8, residents were told they could safely return. Despite safety testing of waterways and air that showed safe levels of the chemicals in question, many residents reported feeling ill or seeing contaminated water and damaged wildlife.

Since our reporting on February 17, politicians on both sides of the aisle have tried to leverage the disaster for political gain. Republicans like former President Donald Trump, who visited the area, have framed East Palestine as another forgotten town in Middle America that is fighting an uncaring giant corporation and an ineffective government. Some, including East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, criticized Biden for visiting Ukraine and not the small Ohio town.

“On Presidents’ Day in our country, he is over in Ukraine,” Conaway said. “That tells you what kind of guy he is.”

Columbiana County, where East Palestine resides, is a heavily Republican area. Trump won 72% of the county’s votes in 2020.

Democrats, meanwhile, have pointed to rail safety regulations that were put into place during the Obama era but gutted by Trump. They've also argued that railway unions, which tried to argue for more vacation time and scheduling flexibility, understood the risk of disasters like this with understaffed trains. Since 1990, on average, there have been about 1,700 train derailments a year, or close to five a day.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttgieg, who also visited East Palestine, defended his decision to wait three weeks to go there. His department also released a suite of safety proposals in response to the crash, including a whistleblower system to report safety issues, new technology advancements to implement without job cuts, and mandated notification to local authorities when trains with hazardous materials pass through their towns.

Today, we're going to explore some arguments from the left and right about why the derailment happened and the best path going forward.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left argue the accident was preventable, and more safety measures and regulation are needed.
  • Some point to cost-cutting measures, record profits, and corporate greed as the causes of the accident.
  • Others are focused on the environmental clean-up and monitoring the health of affected citizens over the long term.

The Washington Post editorial board said the accident was preventable, and proposed some solutions on what to do next.

"[The National Transportation Safety Board] issued a preliminary report Thursday outlining what is known about what happened: On the 23rd car of the 9,000-foot-long, 149-car train, a bearing connecting a wheel to its axle was worn out and overheated," the board wrote. "Norfolk Southern’s warning system went off. The crew tried to stop the train, but couldn’t in time. In other words, Norfolk Southern’s safeguards didn’t fail; the problem was, they were inadequate. In the past decade, America’s freight rail companies have become zealots for efficiency. Trains are longer, and they don’t stop as often. Unprofitable customers are gone. Scheduling is meticulous.

"Nearly 60,000 jobs disappeared since 2015. The companies’ stock prices and profitability have surged. Still, derailments are at historic lows. But the East Palestine accident has shown how deficient the industry has been when it comes to investing in upgrades. Many trains still rely on a Civil War-era braking system, and they aren’t using the latest detectors that experts say could have caught the deteriorating bearing months before that fateful day," the board said. "The best way to prevent this kind of debacle would be to detect the bearing problems much earlier. One option, rail safety experts say, is to require more detectors so there isn’t a 20-mile gap."

In The New York Times, four journalists from The Lever — David Sirota, Rebecca Burns, Julia Rock and Matthew Cunningham-Cook — wrote about how to change the industry.

"Improving rail safety looked promising about a decade ago, in the wake of rising rates of hazmat train derailments," they said. "President Barack Obama’s transportation regulators began considering tougher rules for trains carrying hazardous materials. The proposal included measures to require stricter speed limits, stronger rail cars, more advanced brakes and better disclosure to inform state and local officials about the specifics of the hazardous materials passing through their communities. During the rulemaking process, the federal government’s National Transportation Safety Board told Obama officials that new regulations should cover not only crude oil, but Class 2 flammable gases such as liquefied petroleum gas and chemicals including vinyl chloride as well... Obama officials ultimately sided with a chemical industry lobbying group, declaring that 'expanding the definition to include all hazardous materials is beyond the scope' of the proposed rulemaking.

"Flash forward to Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio: The roughly 150-car train carrying flammable carcinogens, such as vinyl chloride and benzene, wasn’t classified as a 'high-hazard flammable train,' or H.H.F.T. — even though the fire was hazardous enough to require local evacuations," they said. "Three days later, crews had to release and burn five tank cars of the toxic gas, creating a black plume of smoke easily visible from passing passenger jets. Other dangerous chemicals had already spilled or burned in the initial crash... The train was not equipped with the electronic brakes that the former Federal Railroad Administration official Steven Ditmeyer said could have at least mitigated the disaster. And even though the train was over 1.7 miles long, it had a crew of only two, plus a trainee."

In Vox, Umair Irfain focused on the need for long-term monitoring of East Palestine citizens and a continued environmental cleanup effort.

"Occupational health researchers have found that workers who are regularly exposed to chemicals like vinyl chloride have higher rates of liver cancer. It’s a signal that can take 20 years or more to emerge... However, these workers were exposed to higher doses and in enclosed spaces, unlike the residents of East Palestine. It’s not clear how exposures from the train derailment will play out, but the long latency of vinyl chloride’s worst effects means that it’s critical to track its concentrations in the community for years to come," Irfain wrote. "Parts of East Palestine and the surrounding region will also have to be decontaminated, cleaned up, and remediated.

“The water used to extinguish the train fire is now toxic, and 2 million gallons of it are being sent to Texas, where it will be injected underground for disposal. The contaminated soil around the train tracks is being excavated and sent to a toxic waste disposal site in Michigan. The community may also have to look for a new drinking water source... The residents of East Palestine will also have to keep tabs on their health," Irfain wrote. "All these measures, however, will cost a lot of money... To that end, the EPA has ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for the cleanup of the train derailment and the response. If they fall short, the rail operator could face a fine of $70,000 per day according to EPA administrator Regan."

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right say the proposed regulations from the left would not have made a difference.
  • Some criticize a "cookie cutter narrative" about profits and evil corporations, when this was more akin to a freak accident.
  • Others say we should develop a Paycheck Protection Program for residents of East Palestine.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board criticized the "cookie cutter" narrative of "corporate greed" the left is using to explain what happened.

"Mr. Buttigieg cites a 2015 Obama Administration regulation mandating Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) braking technology on some trains carrying flammable liquids such as oil," the board said. "The costly rule provided marginal safety benefits, but it would have advanced the left’s anti-fossil fuel agenda: First, block pipelines. Then make it prohibitively expensive to move oil by rail. Industry groups sued, and Congress instructed the Transportation Department to re-evaluate its analysis and the Government Accountability Office to do an assessment... There’s no evidence ECP brakes would have prevented the derailment, and the Obama rule wouldn’t have applied to the Norfolk Southern train because it wasn’t classified as a 'high hazard flammable unit train.'

"Mr. Buttigieg also criticized Norfolk Southern and other railroads for deploying technology to inspect tracks, which labor unions oppose. Automated inspections are more efficient and can detect safety problems better and more quickly than the human eye. But Biden regulators have limited the technology’s use, and there’s no evidence it contributed to the derailment," the board said. "Mr. Buttigieg also claimed that the accident supports the need for union-backed regulations requiring a minimum of two crew-members on trains. Technology is making it safer and more efficient to operate freight trains with one worker in the cab, as many passenger trains do. Regardless, the East Palestine train had three crew members."

National Review's editors said the accident had nothing to do with the Trump administration, and that few of the proposed regulatory responses would have helped.

"Not one part of the Department of Transportation’s proposed policy response to the accident would have prevented the accident, and plenty of it is completely unrelated," the editors said. "In other words, it is much like progressives’ response to mass shootings: calling for the same policies they wanted anyway, regardless of whether they’d be effective. Pursuing expensive regulation in the name of 'doing something' could cause worse safety outcomes, a fact that Republicans should be prepared to explain. Every regulation that wouldn’t prevent this accident but nonetheless makes it more expensive to ship hazardous materials by rail is a regulation that increases the incentive to ship hazardous materials by truck, which is far more dangerous.

"Buttigieg and others on the left have tried to pin this accident on the Trump administration. In 2017, it scrapped a proposed regulation from the Obama administration that would have required electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes on high-hazard flammable trains (HHFT)," they said. "The Trump administration did the right thing to scrap this rule. Congress requested further study of the effectiveness of ECP brakes in 2015, and a 2017 report found their impact on safety to be inconclusive. The costs outweighed the benefits, so the regulation was abandoned — common sense. This wasn’t even an example of deregulation; it was merely not adopting an additional regulation. "

In The Washington Post, Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance (R) said East Palestine needs its own PPP.

"The lack of public trust means that many of East Palestine’s residents will continue to doubt that their community is safe. We cannot just order them to believe the same public health authorities who — in their view, at least — bungled the response to the covid-19 pandemic. Even if air and water tests show little acute risk of exposure, residents want to know what could happen to those who breathe that air and drink that water for years. Indeed, chronic exposure to vinyl chloride and other chemicals present on the derailed train may be the most pressing public health issue facing East Palestine," Vance said. "But East Palestine has a longer-term perception problem, too. Residents must rebuild an already stressed local economy, in a media environment where every story about the health concerns of residents drives people and capital away from their town.

"A local farmer who raises chickens and hay on her property put the matter bluntly: 'Do you think anyone wants animal feed from a farm in East Palestine? Do you think anyone wants eggs from me?' Unfortunately, she has a point," he said. "East Palestine needs long-term investment, from both the federal government and Norfolk Southern Railway. Without special refinancing, homeowners will be underwater as flight from the community drives home prices lower, decimating the tax base on which local schools and public services rely. Farms will require direct support. Underfunded schools will need help. East Palestine will need its own version of the Paycheck Protection Program to protect workers and businesses who lost their livelihoods because of the decisions of others."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • We have limited information about what caused the derailment, but enough to know what may have helped.
  • The politicization of this issue is not helping, and I don't know how much good Biden visiting would do.
  • I think there are strong cases for whisteblower reforms and new braking regulations.

Without knowing for sure what happened in East Palestine, it's certainly easy to bend this story to your own political narrative. The real debate here is about why this crash happened and what should happen next; there seems to be bipartisan consensus that the citizens of East Palestine need to be protected, treated, and compensated for the long-term impacts of this accident.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board did a good job addressing some of the left's claims: We have no evidence to suggest an Obama-era regulation mandating Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) braking would have prevented this disaster. In a nod to union workers, Buttigieg criticized the technology used to inspect tracks, but it's hard to imagine how that tech would be worse than human error. The same technology has drastically reduced train derailments over the last 30 years. Unions have also long vouched for two crew members on every train, many on the left said, but there were two crew (plus a trainee) on the train that derailed in East Palestine. There are tons of problems with major corporations buying back their own stock in lieu of investing in upkeep and safety measures, but there is no straight line between that and this accident (at least not yet).

Republicans aren't faring much better. Some criticized President Biden for traveling to Ukraine instead of East Palestine, but the harsh reality is that the disaster in Ukraine is orders of magnitude larger — and requires more presidential attention — than what is happening in Ohio. Europe is at war, with hundreds of thousands dead, and rising nuclear tensions. There are zero deaths in Ohio, which is already flooded with local, state, and federal officials, including representatives from the Biden administration.

Meanwhile, Trump's presence and insistence that the government and Norfolk Southern are doing "nothing" for residents isn't just untrue but unhelpful, much like his decision to hand out branded bottled water (and Trump hats) as Ohio officials are trying to calm fears about the drinkability of the area's tap water. Buttigieg’s arrival seemed to have only expanded the media circus and partisanship. All of this makes me wonder how Biden visiting would help much.

Here, in my opinion, is a more realistic look at what's happening: The National Transportation Safety Board has pointed to the failure of a wheel bearing as the cause of the derailment. Not the brakes, or the train's speed, or a mistake by the crew. As we covered in our initial story, those wheel bearings are typically monitored by hotbox detectors, devices situated on the rails that take the temperature of wheelsets as they go by. One weakness in this process is that they are often fairly far apart — sometimes 20 miles or more. Consider this, from The Washington Post's report on the bearing issue:

The 23rd car was 38 degrees above ambient temperature initially. Ten miles later, it was 103 degrees above. The next detector — which came 20 miles later — “recorded the suspect bearing’s temperature at 253°F above ambient,” the NTSB report said. That’s when the alarm went off.

So, specific to this crash, one obvious solution is more hotbox detectors with shorter distances between them — so gaps in the data like this aren't as common. Some experts have also suggested that rather than temperature, detectors should be monitoring vibrations, which could catch a failing bearing much earlier. I'd take either reform.

That doesn't mean other safety solutions should be ignored. Train derailments have fallen precipitously in the last few decades, but since 1990 we're still averaging about 1,700 per year (there were about 1,049 recorded last year). It's common enough that, in the midst of this story, another Norfolk Southern train derailed on Saturday morning in North Carolina.

Given the unbelievable profit surge for the industry as a whole, and the number of train derailments we're still seeing, I think there are some no-brainer regulations to be implemented. One, proposed by Buttigieg, is for freight rail to adopt the Federal Railroad Administration’s Confidential Close Call Reporting Program, which creates a whistleblower program to report safety issues. Amtrak and other commuter railroads already use this, but Class I freight doesn't. There's no reasonable objection I've seen to implementing this (and even some conservative support for it)

I also think costlier regulations like the ECP braking system are reasonable to push for. Obviously, you don't want those regulations to be so expensive that running hazardous materials by truck becomes more cost effective, a point National Review's editors made that I hadn't thought of. It's also true that framing them as a solution to the East Palestine crash is incorrect; but framing them as a generally common sense idea in the context of the industry is actually pretty compelling.

If the railroad industry wants smaller crews, better profit margins, tighter schedules, and higher bars for classifying hazardous materials on trains — all expected cost-cutting moves in an already profitable industry — it can't also resist improving the technical safety of the rail itself. There has to be a give and take. It's one thing to resist stiff, complicated regulations that might kneecap your industry in tough times. It's quite another thing to be raking in historic profits, cutting your workforce by 30%, and resisting new braking systems that even Norfolk Southern concedes could reduce stopping distances by as much as 60%.

In the meantime, the residents of East Palestine need continued health monitoring, attention, and financial restitution for what they've had to live through. Hopefully, the local, state and federal governments can focus both on preventing future incidents like this and keeping a watchful eye on the community suffering at the same time.

Your questions, answered.

Q: You wrote an entire article criticizing Fox News and then said we should go elsewhere for our news. Please don't tell me you mean CNN and MSNBC? I thought you were supposed to be unbiased but this is definitely making me question my subscription.

— Daniel from Wisconsin

Tangle: This piece has generated a lot of feedback that looks a lot like this, including some readers who actually wrote in to say that they had canceled their subscriptions.

The quick summary for those who haven’t read it is that a recent court filing shows many of Fox's biggest stars knew the claims of election fraud were bogus but gave them air time anyway, while also pushing for other reporters at the network to be disciplined or fired for truthfully covering the claims. The piece is meant to explain what happened, and why Fox News viewers should care.

But, I am not suggesting you go watch MSNBC or CNN instead. In fact, I mentioned both of those news organizations in the piece to say this (emphasis mine): "With the premier legacy cable news outlets — like CNN and MSNBC — having obvious left-leaning slants..."

Nor has my media criticism ever been confined to Fox News or any single news outlet. I just wrote an entire 6,000+ word piece about the way many (and generally left-leaning) media outlets failed during the Trump-Russia story. We have now covered Hunter Biden's laptop, the censorship of that story, and the Twitter files close to 10 times. I wrote a lengthy deep dive on how media bias works with a major focus on left-leaning organizations. Last year, I wrote an entire piece titled "Journalistic Malpractice at The New York Times." If anything, I think my media criticism has been lopsided in over-covering left-leaning biases that exist in the media space.

This was the first time I've ever written exclusively about Fox News. To pretend we are somehow biased for covering this story the way we did — or that I suggested Fox is the only problem in the media — ignores our massive existing body of work on the issue of media bias.

When I say look elsewhere, I certainly don't mean MSNBC or CNN. Like Fox News, those networks provide something people want in the market, and have their own strengths (I like CNN's international coverage and MSNBC's election coverage with Steve Kornacki, for instance). But they all have glaring weaknesses, which leads to my opinion that you should watch as little cable news as possible.

Instead, if you’re honestly concerned about how to respond as a Fox viewer following the news we covered last week, I would recommend trying to read as many diverse and opposing sources as you can about any single issue. That's what I do every day, and it's how I came up with the Tangle concept of putting that all in one place.

But any time you combine news and entertainment the way cable news does, you are bound to get into trouble, lean into hyperbole, and focus far too much on inflaming partisan tensions and driving up ratings over factual reporting. It’s clear that’s where Fox and most of the other major networks go wrong, and it’s why I frequently tell my readers to look elsewhere for reliable news.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Democrats' divides over the U.S.-Mexico border are becoming more intense, with nearly 80 Democratic lawmakers openly protesting President Biden's recent actions. Last week, Biden introduced new rules that will make it harder for migrants to apply for asylum. Many Democrats are expressing outrage about the changes, comparing Biden to Trump and describing the rules as "racist." While the new rules require asylum seekers to jump through more hoops in order to pass through Mexico into the U.S., Biden has simultaneously introduced new ways for migrants to enter the U.S. legally. The Washington Post has the story.


  • 1,350. The number of train derailments in 2015.
  • 1,049. The number of train derailments in 2022.
  • 667. The number of railway hazmat incidents including toxic chemicals in 2013.
  • 355. The number of railway hazmat incidents including toxic chemicals in 2022.
  • 13,888. The number of truck hazmat incidents in 2013.
  • 23,178. The number of truck hazmat incidents in 2023.
  • $21 million. The cost of the damage done by those 23,178 highway hazmat spills in 2022.
  • $45 million. The cost of the damage done by those 355 railway hazmat spills in 2022. (Editor's note: This discrepancy is due to how much more material trains carry).

The extras.

Have a nice day.

The American chestnut tree used to make up roughly 25% of all of America's hardwood trees. But in the early 20th century, the accidental introduction of the chestnut blight, a fungus from Asia, resulted in the death of virtually all American chestnut trees. That's an estimated 3.5 billion in all. Now, though, the American Chestnut Foundation — dedicated to bringing the trees back — believes it has created a genetically engineered tree that can still contract the blight, but does not suffer from it. After years of testing the trees to make sure they would not harm natural ecosystems, regulators believe they are ready for introduction into the wild, which could happen as soon as this summer. The Berkshire Eagle has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.