Last February, a Norfolk Southern train moving from Madison, Illinois to Conway, Pennsylvania, derailed just outside East Palestine, Ohio, catching fire before spewing 100,000 gallons of hazardous chemicals, from vinyl chloride to butyl acrylate. In their desperate effort to prevent a massive chemical explosion, emergency crews then burned off five train cars full of vinyl chloride, a move that itself has turned much of the region into a toxic sacrifice zone.
The residents of East Palestine are still dealing with the fallout. Beyond the mysterious illnesses that many residents are coping with, the air, groundwater and soil have been contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. While the EPA has declared the area safe, “a Guardian analysis by experts in February found the soil contains dioxin levels hundreds of times greater than the exposure threshold above which Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists in 2010 found poses cancer risks.”
Jessica Conard watched the flaming train careen through her backyard - a flash that changed everything for her and her family. Blanketing her home with airborne pollutants that linger to this day, the disaster opened her eyes to the ways that companies and governments work together to sweep disasters under the rug. Almost overnight, Jessica began to research the health effects of chemical exposure, becoming an outspoken activist, organizer, and advocate for environmental justice as the Appalachia Director of Beyond Plastics. During a recent site visit with the We Refuse to Die team, she describes how the event transformed her perspective:
“The hum of the train has been the background of my life. And now it just feels like all of those memories are tainted with this screeching and huffing and moving and wreckage. And it is so impactful – not just now and in the future, but it really does mess with your past. It messes with your psyche and all of those memories. My husband is a train enthusiast, and I was like, ‘Are you really going to put the train under the tree this year?’”
The railway that Jessica and her family described fondly as a “noisy neighbor” turned out to be a chemical weapon in disguise. For her, the train has become a prism through which we can see the calculated risks that companies are taking with all of our lives.
The interconnected histories of industrialization and settler-colonialism in the United States could be easily told through the history of the country’s railways, many of which were built with the exploited labor of immigrants, convicts, and poor settlers on seized Native land. As one Cheyenne delegate explained to a New York crowd in 1871: “Before they ever ploughed or planted an acre of corn for us they commenced to build railroads.” Railways were central to capitalist development in the US because they made it possible to expand extractive infrastructure beyond the natural logistical channels of rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Not only was this the story of the Transcontinental railroad, but it was also the story of the Norfolk Southern Fort Wayne Line that runs through Jessica’s backyard. Opened over the course of the 1850s, the Fort Wayne Line was named in honor of the Treaty of Fort Wayne (1809), which opened up over 3 million acres of Native lands to settlement, helping to clear the path for industrial trade between Pittsburgh and Chicago. Like so many others, the Fort Wayne Line was built to aid the circulation of commodities (and their raw materials) at the expense of the people who happened to be in the way.
On February 3, 2023, the residents of East Palestine were in the way.
Like Jessica, Hilary Flint’s house was contaminated by the blast. Together with a group of impacted residents, they formed the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment to draw attention to the lasting health consequences of the event, and to collectively appeal for federal aid. Hilary underscores one lesson undercutting this acute disaster: that those of us working toward environmental justice need to engage not only with the health risks faced by communities living near fracking pads, petrochemical plants, and other fixed points of production, but also the risks faced by people living near the arteries that connect them.
“All of those chemicals travel through the United States. They travel through Jess's backyard, and they're arriving at places like the Shell Plastics plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. It doesn't even matter if you live near a plastics plant or a petrochemical facility because these dangerous hazardous cancerous chemicals are being transported all over the United States via train.”
Petrochemical infrastructure is place-based and infrastructural, cutting across and under cities, farm fields, watersheds and freshwater sources to connect Port Arthur, Texas to St. James, Louisiana, to Beaver County, Pennsylvania, to Sarnia, Ontario and beyond. And while a significant movement has grown over the past decade to confront pipeline build-outs — from Enbridge Line 3 to the Dakota Access Pipeline — the East Palestine disaster reminds us that railways too are key logistical infrastructure for getting hazardous materials from one place to another. Just like pipelines, chemical trains can and do malfunction, contaminating entire regions in the process.
Just as trains, pipelines, and other logistical infrastructure expose people, animals, and ecosystems to harm, so too do they create openings for solidarity — between and among communities living in sacrifice zones and people living between them. As Duncan Tarr and Nor Us-Sabah underscore, “For every possible pipeline rupture there is a possible rupture of our own, a break with the system of pipelines and fossil fuels.”
Consider the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which is slated to move crude oil through the unceded territory of the Secwepemc Nation and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, enroute from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Port of Vancouver. To block this pipeline, activists from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and the Secwepemc Nation have been working together, connecting their specific place-based struggles for tribal sovereignty into a broad-scale campaign against extraction. Together, they are forging a durable solidarity infrastructure along the pipeline route.
Building and sustaining solidarity infrastructure takes work – including the work of cultural production. This has been the task of the House of Tears Carvers' Totem Pole Journeys, which our collective has been supporting for the past eight years. Every year, a group of carvers, organizers, and community leaders from the Lummi Nation have been carving a totem pole, putting it on a flatbed trailer, and traveling it to sites of environmental struggle across the US to raise awareness about the environmental health impacts of fossil fuels. They visit Indigenous communities, farmers and ranchers, and faith-based communities, engaging each in a ceremony, led by Lummi elders. Each time, participants are asked to touch the totem pole — to give it their power, and to receive its power in turn. The goal of the Totem Pole Journeys is to connect communities on the frontlines of environmental struggle, and to build, through ceremony, a broad and unlikely alliance of people against dirty energy infrastructure.
When coal companies proposed to build the largest coal port terminal in North America right next to the Lummi Nation’s reservation in the Pacific Northwest, Lummi elders and community leaders set out on a Totem Pole Journey to the towns and cities along the coal train’s route, from Seattle, Washington, to Bozeman, Montana, to Sheridan, Wyoming, staging ceremonies that would draw out and hold together allies whose lives would be variably impacted by the increased train traffic promised by the coal port terminal. The proposal was eventually killed, thanks, in part, to the creative work of the House of Tears Carvers.
Like the Totem Pole Journeys, which seek to both produce and make visible the growing solidarity of people impacted by polluting energy infrastructure, We Refuse to Die is an effort to build power by connecting communities across the country that are facing distinct but interrelated harms.
Jessica is preparing the ground to plant an Externality in her yard facing the rail line that not only led to the contamination of her home, but continues to pose risk for everyone who lives on its path. Unlike most of the carvings being installed within the context of this project, Jessica’s Externality will not stare at a massive petrochemical complex, but a seemingly innocuous site — a rail line that, on the surface, looks like any other.
Activating the rail line as a front line of struggle, Jessica's Externality makes an important intervention. It invites us to expand the scope of our struggles beyond the most hazardous polluting sites, reminding us that our struggles are bound together - by logistical infrastructure, but more importantly, by our growing infrastructure of resistance.
* The above quotations were transcribed from a site visit with Hilary Flint and Jessica Conard on July 19, 2023