The Ohio train derailment should prompt a review of measures that are supposed to protect people and the environment.
Many New Jerseyans followed the Feb. 3 derailment of a train operated by Norfolk Southern, near East Palestine, Ohio, that triggered a fire sending fumes from several toxic chemicals into the local environment. Chemicals released include vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen which is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products, such as household water pipes, flooring and exterior siding.
I expected that the incident would prompt a national conversation about our collective use of hazardous chemicals, the movement of hazardous materials through population centers, the measures society should take to protect the residents who live there, and the extent to which such hazards are unequally borne by certain populations including people of color and people with lower incomes.
Rather, the nation seems to be more focused on discussions about the adequacy of the government response to such chemical disasters, a Trump administration repeal of a requirement for more sophisticated braking systems on high-hazard trains and who will pay for the medical care of workers and residents. While I agree that those issues are also incredibly compelling, perhaps now is a time to reflect on two concepts of environmental protection for which New Jersey has provided national leadership: disclosure of hazardous materials and chemicals in our communities and workplaces and promoting the reduction in use and generation of those materials at their source.
A March 10 National Public Radio broadcast reported that “railroad companies have to disclose the routes of trains carrying hazardous materials to the Federal Railroad Administration, but the agency does not share that information publicly.” Reading this reminded me that 2023 is the 40th anniversary of the 1983 New Jersey Worker and Community Right to Know Act, enacted under Gov. Thomas Kean. The conversation in New Jersey at the time, especially among frontline communities, environmentalists and labor advocates, was that we all have a right to understand what hazardous materials and chemicals are in our workplaces and communities. The act’s legislative findings were bold:
“The Legislature finds and declares that the proliferation of hazardous substances in the environment poses a growing threat to public health, safety, and welfare … individuals have an inherent right to know the full range of the risks they face so that they can make reasoned decisions and take informed action concerning their employment and living conditions.”
Preventing and detecting hazards
During 1982 hearings on the law as it was making its way through the Legislature, a faculty member at the former Rutgers Medical School testified that he believed “the proposed legislation plays an intrinsic role in the development of a broad range of preventive programs that can detect hazards in the workplace or in the community and develop programs to reduce those.”
The Ohio train derailment also reminded me that 32 years ago, New Jersey passed the 1991 Pollution Prevention Act under the leadership of the late Gov. Jim Florio. The law requires large industries to plan for ways to voluntarily reduce their hazardous chemical use, storage, production and release on the assumption that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Additionally, the law calls for the establishment of a Pollution Prevention Advisory Board, which was never created, to, among other things:
- Review current science to assess risks posed by industrial hazardous substances;
- Assess the feasibility of reducing industrial hazardous substances without reducing employment opportunities; and
- Conduct research, hold hearings and prepare recommendations on prohibiting or further restricting use, production, manufacture, discharge or disposal of hazardous materials in the state.
With passage of the 1983 Worker and Community Right to Know Act and the 1991 Pollution Prevention Act, New Jersey took bold steps in its efforts to protect public health and the environment by embracing two concepts we are not seeing elevated today in the wake of the Ohio train derailment: ensuring public transparency about chemicals in workplaces and communities, and advancing effort to ensure we are reducing hazardous material use to the extent feasible and cost-effective. New Jersey’s laws reflected leadership on the part of Republican and Democratic governors. By promoting transparency about the flow of hazardous materials through our workplaces and communities, and by promoting feasible and economically viable reductions in chemical use, both laws were intended to deliver “win-win” outcomes for workers, communities and businesses.
Perhaps the Ohio train derailment presents an opportunity for New Jersey to look back on those two laws to ensure that we are maximizing use of their authorities and provisions to safeguard our own neighborhoods, workplaces and communities. Perhaps, also, now is the right time for the nation to revisit New Jersey’s long-standing leadership and strengthen the country’s worker and community right- to-know provisions as well as efforts to reduce overall consumption of hazardous materials in our society.