So, about those malt liquor boxcars
Plus: elder millennial Gary beer
By now you have likely heard about the horrible rail disaster earlier this month in East Palestine, Ohio, where a Norfolk Southern train equipped with Civil War-era brake technology derailed, exploded, and began spewing toxic smoke in a mushroom cloud visible from space. There are plenty of people to blame for this spiraling, preventable environmental disaster. The list includes the rapacious industrialists who have spent millions of dollars lobbying against more stringent safety regulations and busting railworkers’ unions for warning against this very issue in order to protect their profits, and the politicians (Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Department of Transportation Secretary/alleged price-fixer Pete Buttigieg, to name just a few) who have assisted them in this quest through a combination of incompetence, corruption, and sniveling cowardice.
Set that aside for a moment if you can, and consider this:
Despite the fact that its train was carrying all sorts of hazardous chemicals apparently Norfolk Southern was not technically required to notify officials or residents in Ohio about what was in its derailed train cars because most of those cars were not carry hazardous materials.
According to a partial manifesto the company provided to the Environmental Protection Agency, the non-hazardous cargo the train was carrying included at least eight box cars loaded with “malt liquors.”
Malt liquors! We know what those are, don’t we? Actually, maybe we don’t: I’m not sure whether this term refers to actual cases of high-gravity beer like Steel Reserve and Olde English, or some weird way of referring to grain distillate that I’m unfamiliar with. But based on the available reporting and the manifesto, plus the fact that Norfolk Southern 32N originates in Madison, Illinois, just 10 miles from Anheuser-Busch InBev’s St. Louis brewery, it seems reasonable to assume we’re talking about some sort of beverage-alcohol product here. If true, it means that part of the reason Norfolk Southern was able to withhold information about the potential severity of the disaster in its early days from the 4,700 rank-and-file citizens it affected, plus the local news crews and public-health authorities scrambling to respond, was because a bunch of booze gave them an out.
Huh. We talk a lot here at Fingers about how the beverage-alcohol industry is an industry, but rarely is there such a public-facing example of what that actually looks like in practice. In East Palestine, OH, it looks like a 150-car freight train hauling carcinogenic plastic-precursor chemicals and malt liquor together on the same run. Again, that’s assuming those boxcars were full of the beverage. But regardless, alcohol and rail have been closely linked for decades. The 20th-century rise of national beer companies was due in part to the invention of the refrigerated rail car, as historian, author of Ambitious Brew, and Friend of Fingers Maureen Ogle is always fond of reminding me. Today, like so many other industries, rail freight is vital to the distribution and sale of beer (and to some extent, wine and spirits) at scale, which is why last year, as railworkers geared up to strike the carriers over sick leave, staffing concerns, and unsafe conditions like those that appear to have led to 32N’s derailment, the Beer Institute sent a letter to Congressional leaders urging them to avert a strike by forcing the unions to accept the Biden administration’s Presidential Emergency Board recommendations.
It never even got that far, of course: Biden publicly cut bait on the rail workers late last year, signaling the deck was stacked against the strike. Christmas was saved, the railroad workers got screwed, and a few months later, East Palestine residents would be, too. I’m not saying the Beer Institute or the beverage-alcohol industry has any direct culpability in this catastrophe. I don’t believe that, honestly; the fact that there was malt liquor on 32N is just a relevant-to-us coincidence. But I do believe that beyond the small concentric circle of direct culprits—the carriers, the politicians, the Wall Street investors who slashed the workforce and cast the die on this derailment—there’s a much bigger one of indirectly involved players who benefitted from the low prices and high profits that America’s emaciated freight rail network delivered until it didn’t. Major beverage-alcohol companies are part of that group, I think, as are the large agricultural firms that ship grain and malt over the rails. That’s just a fact of the system we live under.
What about drinkers? Do we belong in that group too, for demanding high-quality goods at low prices underwritten by deferred maintenance on decrepit infrastructure most of us will never lay eyes on? Are we victims of the system, or complicit in the devastation it creates? I lean towards the former, because blaming consumers for the dictated conditions of their consumption seems pretty backwards to me when the companies doing the dictating are doing so to maximize profit. Your mileage may vary. Either way, don’t mistake this for an exhortation to drink local. I think that’s a nice idea, but even if you were some sort of laissez-faire pervert intent on buying the cheapest beer possible, brewed by the most exploited labor and shipped through sacrifice zones under dangerous conditions, it wouldn’t make a difference! Your choices don’t really matter, not compared to the scope of the system. Buying craft malt liquor (ahem) will not exempt you from its consequences.
Situations like the one currently unfolding in Ohio demonstrate just how impotent individual consumer choices are in the face of the recalcitrant, interlocking, upwardly redistributive systems of American capitalism. You couldn’t drink enough local beer in 10 lifetimes to change the system that delivered disaster to the citizens of East Palestine. Voting for “the most pro-labor president of our lifetime” won’t do it, either. I believe we must build power outside electoral politics by organizing into labor unions, environmental justice groups, civil rights coalitions, all of the above, to have any shot at holding corporations—including beverage-alcohol corporations!—and their political allies accountable for the system they’ve built at our expense. And on my better days, I believe we can do it.
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📬 Good post alert
🤷♂️ Elder millennial Gary beer
This week, 311, a band I have not thought about since the R.A. of my freshman year dorm included “Down” on her welcome playlist during move-in weekend in 2007, announced it was launching a beer. It’s called Come Original IPA. Many astute Twitter users were quick to point out that an India pale ale is not an amber ale, which would’ve seemed an obvious choice for a gimmick beer given “Amber” is the band’s biggest hit by far. I don’t usually write about this sort of thing because Fingers’ editorial policy prohibits product launch announcements, and it’s decidedly not news (unless you didn’t realize 311 was still around, in which case, BREAKING: they are!) But I thought it was worth mentioning for two reasons.