Blame and Finger-Pointing Don’t Solve Environmental Disasters

Instead of blaming environmental catastrophes on the actions of individuals, it's time to start looking at the bigger picture...

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Source: John Hain

In early February of this year, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, resulting in 100,000 gallons of hazardous materials being dumped into local freshwater sources, sparking a national debate over who should fall on their sword and take the blame for this devastating environmental disaster. It’s June 26th, and the jury is still out. 

On February 13th, the 51-car train’s derailment dumped hazardous chemicals such as benzene residue, butyl acrylate, and most prominently vinyl chloride, which is utilized in many plastic products. These chemicals seeped their way into residents’ drinking water, contaminated soil, and storm drains, and killed roughly 43,000 marine animals. This led to the surrounding residents being evacuated for days, but even after returning home, reports of dirty air and unsafe drinking water came flooding in. After the train’s derailment made national news, many blamed the rail company (Norfolk Southern), while others blamed Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg for their delayed response or not being as concerned about the situation because East Palestine has voted red in the last couple of elections. And the list goes on and on.

Instead of proactively engaging resources to “clean up” and prevent these environmental catastrophes from occurring, people are always quick to jump to unsubstantiated blame games in the aftermath of a disaster. Although accountability can be constructive, blame for the sake of blame only leads to guilty parties shifting responsibility and unnecessary arguments over catastrophes that should otherwise unite us.

For example, Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, was the site of possibly the worst environmental disaster in U.S. History. The Love Canal area was originally a dumping ground for 22,000 tons of chemical waste for Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation during the 1940s and ‘50s. After the site was filled in, the company “graciously” gifted the site to the city of Niagara Falls, allowing them to expand their housing and infrastructure. However, in 1978, state officials found that toxic chemicals from underground had leaked into the basements of homes built on top of the dumping site. Investigators then determined that there was an “abnormally high incidence of chromosomal damage among the area’s residents,” assumed to be caused by the residents’ long-term exposure to toxic chemical wastes. It took the city of New York until the early 1990s to end its cleanup and declare (only) parts of the Love Canal area safe to live in. 

When it comes to determining guilty parties, one could surely hold Hooker Chemicals accountable. The company had been aware since the 1940s that a heaping pile of toxic waste was underneath the filled-in site, not contained or regulated, yet they sold it off to the Niagara Falls School Board for a whopping $1, to “alleviate them from future liabilities for the buried chemicals.” This is the definition of pulling an “uno reverse” card. Hooker Chemicals put a liability clause into their contract with the school board for a reason: to cover their tracks in case something went haywire. Hooker Chemicals “washed their hands” of the Love Canal catastrophe, pushing the responsibility of the aftermath onto state, local, and federal authorities. This allowed for Love Canal residents and their descendants to be exposed, and continue to be exposed, to these toxic chemicals. Because the EPA and Hooker Chemicals were too focused on blaming one another for who was at fault, working through litigation aspects of the case (i.e., victim compensation), and who’s going to fit the toxic waste site cleanup bill, it took 12 years for half of Love Canal to become “liveable” again, and around 50 years from the inception of the first Hooker Chemicals waste dump, for the toxic waste site to be “completely” cleared from hazardous chemicals. 

But the blame game isn’t just connected to disasters like East Palestine and Love Canal. Take the Tennessee Kingston Coal Ash Spill of 2008, where 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash were released into the waterways. It was discovered in 2020 that regulators of Kingston “deleted and then altered a state-sanctioned report showing extremely high levels of radiation at the cleanup site” to not be liable for their workers’ exposure to radioactive materials or responsible for compensating the cleanup workers who have died/are still suffering from health problems such as cancer or receiving lung transplants. Kingston regulators allowed their fear and borderline obsession over not being blamed to cloud their judgment, so much so that they worked to eliminate themselves from the possible culprit-equation. They made it seem as though their office could not be at fault (even the numbers favored their assertions), making it easier to chalk up these health abnormalities to chance or coincidence.

Or take the Martin County Coal Slurry Spill of 2000, where “300 million gallons of slurry” were “released into the Wolf Creek and Rockcastle Creek watersheds of Martin County, Kentucky.” This slurry contained unsafe chemicals such as mercury and arsenic and could’ve been prevented if the Martin County Coal Corporation addressed the documented structural deficiencies of the “impoundment” housing these dangerous liquids. These examples highlight the dangers that come from not instilling accountability in terms of preventative action. 

I understand the critics who are skeptical and pessimistic about governmental organizations and large corporations handing out “empty promises” in hopes of diverting the public’s attention away from their involvement in an environmental disaster. I am skeptical about governmental promises/regulations addressing issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, and air pollution.

But I choose to be cautiously optimistic because I know it is not conducive to start resorting to blaming. This is because blame causes fear, which increases cover-ups and reduces the flow of information. According to organizational consultant Dr. Marilyn Paul, “Blame is a fix that diverts the blamers’ attention away from long-term interpersonal or structural solutions to problems.” Because environmental disasters require long-term and structural solutions to ensure an area is suitable for humans and other biotic creatures, they can’t afford to be halted by inactive parties who refuse to admit responsibility and are more worried about clearing their name than the toxic waste site they created.  

Although the jury is still out on who was responsible for the train derailment in East Palestine, I argue that this story and the stories of Love Canal, Kingston, and Martin County are integral examples of what happens when “innocent” blaming and finger-pointing turns into lives lost, irreversible chromosomal damage, and the decimation of whole marine animal populations. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. These tragic examples provide a clear picture of the constructiveness of accountability and the trivial attributes of blaming.

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Emma Jones is a junior at the University of Kansas from Platte City, Missouri majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Sports Management. She has also recently been accepted into the Accelerated Masters Program in Environmental Assessment at the University of Kansas.


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