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Sensemaker: Two trains

Sensemaker: Two trains

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Zelensky said the situation in Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine besieged by Russian forces, was “more and more difficult”.
  • UK food inflation reached a record 17.1 per cent in February according to industry data, mainly driven by rising milk, egg and margarine prices. 
  • Betty Boothroyd, the first female Speaker of the House of Commons, died aged 93.

Two trains

A train derailment in eastern Ohio is being used by radical Republicans to highlight political divisions and undermine support for US aid to Ukraine.

So what? It could work. Contenders for the Republican presidential nomination need a compelling pitch to blue-collar America, and concrete reasons to oppose aid to Ukraine if they’re to turn the issue to their advantage. The derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train on 3 February – laden with chemicals and nearly two miles long – helps on both fronts. 

Rightly or wrongly (the facts suggest wrongly), this has been seized on as a story about

  • America’s neglected white working class;
  • a feckless federal government; and
  • a president on the wrong train at the wrong time. 

The Norfolk Southern train, 149 cars long, derailed late on a Friday night outside East Palestine, pop. 4,700, near the Pennsylvania state line. It was carrying hundreds of tons of vinyl chloride which when burned produces the deadly nerve gas phosgene.

The other train is the one that carried President Biden to Kyiv two weeks later. Seen as a diplomatic triumph at the time, it’s being used now as a stick to beat him with for consorting with “the globalists”, as Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri puts it, rather than his own people.

The argument about East Palestine points three ways at once:

Back to Covid. The US Environmental Protection Agency ordered a partial evacuation of East Palestine during a controlled release of vinyl chloride, then lifted it on 9 February. The agency says the air now poses no risk to residents – but they don’t believe it, says Erin Brockovich, the activist, who’s spent time at the scene. Some blame a collapse of trust in US public health authorities since the wave of misinformation that accompanied the Trump administration’s response to Covid. 

East to Ukraine. Trump visited East Palestine last week and wondered aloud if there would be “money left over” for its people after Biden had finished sending billions to Ukraine. Nikki Haley asked if Biden “shouldn’t be with those people in Ohio” when he was in Poland. The argument is specious. Presidents have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. But cooked-up stories of alleged sins of omission, like the one about Hillary Clinton’s failure to protect a US ambassador in Benghazi in 2012, linger as long as people like to tell them. If Benghazi resonated, East Palestine will too.

Forward to 2024. Biden lost Ohio to Trump in 2020. If he runs next year he can ill afford to lose it again, especially given Florida is barely a swing state any more. The $100 billion sent so far by Washington to Ukraine is dwarfed by the nearly $700 billion pledged via Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science Act for skilled jobs in places like East Palestine. Expect the smaller number to become a wedge issue even so. 

By the numbers

1,000 – derailments per year in the US, approx. 

20 – railcars in the Norfolk Southern train that were carrying vinyl chloride. 

0 – human deaths as a result of the accident, although hundreds of fish have been found dead in local rivers. 

1 – injuries (to Ohio’s governor, who broke an ankle visiting a local church). 

2.5 – weeks until Biden spoke publicly about the accident. 

By the periodic table

  • Vinyl chloride is carcinogenic, but less so than aspirin and caffeine.
  • It doesn’t linger long in air or water, unlike the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) dumped in the Hudson River by General Electric between 1947 and 1977.
  • It isn’t lethal, unlike the methyl isocyanate that killed thousands in Bhopal in 1984.

Related viewing: Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo, about the true story of DuPont, non-stick frying pans and years of mysterious illnesses in West Virginia.


Women on boards
The FTSE 350 has met a target of 40 per cent female representation at board level three years early – an increase of 30 percentage points in 12 years – according to the FTSE Women Leader’s review. The proportion of women on senior leadership teams across the FTSE 350 has also increased, to 34 per cent, up from 32.5 per cent last year. The review found a similar proportion of women in senior leadership roles at the UK’s largest 50 private companies – included for the first time in this year’s update – and significantly more women in FTSE 100 financial director roles this year (23 per cent) compared with last year (16 per cent). But Nimesh Patel, co-chair of the review and CFO of FTSE 100 engineering company Spirax Sarco, said that the CEO talent pipeline needs work, with female representation in these roles at only 9 per cent. 


Belfast boom
Rishi Sunak is in Belfast today to sell the Windsor Agreement on Northern Ireland and Brexit to local businesspeople. It shouldn’t be too hard. Markets’ overall reaction to the deal announced yesterday was a brief bounce followed by a wait-and-see retreat by asset managers who’ve learned to price a lot of uncertainty into UK stocks. But Northern Ireland was and remains in the unique position of being at once in the UK and the EU single market. That has boosted trade with the Republic markedly since the Brexit withdrawal agreement came into force: exports were up 64 per cent in the first 11 months of 2021; imports were up 48. Goods traffic across the Irish Sea did take a hit, but the new green lanes for intra-UK trade should remedy that. Oh to be in Belfast.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Hong Kong smiles
“Hong Kong will return to normal,” said John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive, as he announced the city’s Covid mask mandate will end tomorrow after 959 days of enforcement. It’s one of the last places in the world to have one, and the past three years have taken a toll. Strict controls on tourism and overseas visitors imposed in line with Beijing’s Covid policies have left the hub’s economy faltering (last year GDP declined 3.5 per cent) and have led to an exodus of businesses and residents. Hong Kong’s health chief, Lo Chung-mau, said he hoped that the city could now “show our smiles and say: ‘Hello Hong Kong’” – the government’s latest tourism slogan. Macau, Hong Kong’s neighbouring territory, also dropped its outdoor and indoor mask mandate on Monday. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

A way forward
Some good climate news: the rate of deforestation in Indonesia’s rainforests has slowed to its lowest level in two decades. After years of catastrophic destruction, largely to make way for palm oil plantations, the rate of forest loss in Indonesia fell by more than half between 2015 and 2021, according to the Wall Street Journal, while it increased in countries like Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. How? First, the government set strict forest-clearing limits five years ago, with some companies facing million-dollar penalties. Second, multinational companies pledged to avoid palm oil that involved forest destruction. Third, environmental groups revealed which companies’ supply chains were linked to razing rainforest. Deforestation is still a rolling disaster, but it’s not inevitable. 


Dirty business
In the past week, two senior officials from opposition parties in India have been arrested. The first, Pawan Khera, a spokesman for the Indian National Congress, was arrested and escorted off a plane at New Delhi’s airport after mocking Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his links to the embattled business tycoon Gautam Adani. The second, Manish Sisodia, deputy chief minister of Delhi, was arrested on Sunday on allegations of corruption linked to a liquor sales policy. His Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, denies the charges and claims his arrest is “dirty politics”. It says Modi is trying to discredit opponents ahead of elections next year. Sisodia remains in custody; yesterday his party held protests outside the offices of Modi’s BJP party in several Indian cities. 

Thanks for reading. Please tell your friends to sign up, send us ideas and let us know what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Jess Winch, Phoebe Davis, Maddy Diment and Sophie Barnett.

Photographs Getty Images, National Transportation Safety Board

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