Small-town life in the sacrifice zone.
There’s so much to say about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio – all of it utterly enraging – that it is difficult to know where to start. That even before February 3, deadly chemicals were traveling through a residential town on the regular. The lack of basic safety regulations that might have prevented something like this from happening. That this catastrophe comes mere weeks after railroad workers were told by Biden and Congress to get back to work. The complete indifference of the company. The ghoulish response by some liberals asking how the residents of East Palestine voted. Take your pick.
My mind goes somewhere else, however. About four hours east, on the opposite edge of Appalachia. There have been plenty of other heavy industries that have made their home over the decades in East Palestine. Tire factories, steel foundries, and the like. But given its location, it is, and will always be, a town that exists because of the railroads. Much the same way that Centralia, Pennsylvania only existed because of the mines. It died because of the mines too.
Centralia’s case is already fairly well known, though even those who have never heard of the place have a good chance of encountering it in pop culture. The town served as inspiration for the original Silent Hill video games, and has been featured in several documentaries over the decades. This was a mining town par excellence. Its population boom – insofar as a town of a few thousand can have a population boom – came with the opening of the coal mines.
In 1962, a trash fire in a strip mine pit made contact with an underground vein of anthracite. The fire spread through the mines, some of which had already been closed and abandoned. With no way to put it out, it continued to burn, and burn, and burn. All while the life of a small town continued above. The scale of the problem became apparent in 1981 when sinkholes began to open up in residents’ yards. In 1983, Congress allocated $42 million for relocation efforts.
Today, the town is abandoned, with only a few structures remaining intact. The asphalt roads and highways, long blocked off, are collapsing into the ground. Put a match close to the pavement, and it will spontaneously light, so hot is the underground fire. With that much fuel, it is expected to continue burning for the next thousand years.
The scenes in East Palestine are similarly apocalyptic. Plumes of carcinogenic smoke, residents sick from the fumes, trails of dead pets and wild animals. Perhaps the ground isn’t literally opening up to eat the town, but it may as well be. Chemicals like those that are spewing into the air and leeching into the ground of the town don’t simply evaporate or dissipate, especially at these mammoth volumes.
It will take decades for East Palestine to recover from this. If residents are lucky, then the federal government will compensate them to move to a safer location, as they eventually did in Centralia. To pull up roots and say good-bye to friends, family, neighbors, everything you’ve come to know and rely on emotionally, this is a choice borne of disaster, but it is a clear one for most.
That choice most likely won’t be offered here. Even the limited evacuation of around 2,000 residents out of a population of 7,000 was reversed after a few days. Officials insisted it was safe to return home, and to breathe. As the years go by, they’ll continue to do the same, despite rising incidences of cancer and respiratory illness. It’s likely that plenty will end up leaving, regardless of whether they leave behind a house with an underwater mortgage. East Palestine’s population has already been shrinking for some time due to the usual rustbelt reasons. This accident may yet speed up the process.
There is a certain kind of toxic optimist who is sure to respond and dismiss by squaring industrial or environmental disasters like these against the absolute worst of the worst. It’s bad but it’s not Chernobyl. It’s terrible to see but at least it’s not Bhopal. The point, however, is that an entire method of civilization-building has been established on a metabolic rift that has been widening dangerously for the better part of 300 years.
Occasionally, we stop and stare in horror at some catastrophe that cannot be stuffed to the insignificant corners of the news cycle. Most disasters are far away enough, or unfold on a long enough timeline, to be integrated into the rhythms of daily life, even as they become more frequent and deadly. Centralia. Flint. Covid. California wildfires. An earthquake in Turkey and Syria, worsened by cheap building materials. An ammonium nitrate explosion in Beirut. A gas leak in Jordan.
In Appalachia, the mines and the railroads came hand in hand. In Centralia, it only made sense to tunnel for anthracite after the Mine Run Railroad reached the area. Heavy industry needed extracted minerals to flourish, and the fast and efficient transport of those minerals only became possible when heavy industry became capable of the locomotive. In the abstract, developing our relationship with technology and ecology need not be such a disaster. But in this timeline, the timeline of capital and commodity, it has. And right now, we have no choice but to live in it.