Dangerous trains, aging rails, what could possibly go wrong?

A CSX freight train ran off the rails last month in rural Mount Carbon, W.Va. One after another, exploding rail cars sent hellish fireballs hundreds of feet into the clear winter sky. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency, and the fires burned for several days…

These explosions have generally been attributed to the design of the rail cars — they’re notoriously puncture-prone — and the volatility of the oil; it tends to blow up. Less attention has been paid to questions surrounding the safety and regulation of the nation’s aging network of 140,000 miles of freight rails, which carry their explosive cargo through urban corridors, sensitive ecological zones and populous suburbs.

Case in point: The wooden trestles that flank the Mobile and Ohio railroad bridge, built in 1898, as it traverses Alabama’s Black Warrior River between the cities of Northport and Tuscaloosa. Oil trains rumble roughly 40 feet aloft, while joggers and baby strollers pass underneath. One of the trestles runs past the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. Yet when I visited last May, many of the trestles’ supports were rotted and some of its cross braces were dangling or missing.

The public has only one hope of finding out if such centenarian bridges are still sturdy enough to carry these oil trains. Ask the railroads. That’s because the federal government doesn’t routinely inspect rail bridges. In fact, the government lacks any engineering standards whatsoever for rail bridges. Nor does it have an inventory of them.

The only significant government intrusion into the railroads’ self-regulation of the nation’s 70,000 to 100,000 railroad bridges is a requirement that the companies inspect them each year. But the Federal Railroad Administration, which employed only 76 track inspectors as of last year, does not routinely review the inspection reports and allows each railroad to decide for itself whether or not to make repairs…

Five oil trains have exploded in the United States in the last 16 months. Miraculously, there have been no deaths. Canada, however, hasn’t been so lucky. In July 2013, an oil train carrying North Dakota oil burst into flames in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, about 10 miles from the Maine border, killing 47 people…

But more than a year and a half after Lac-Mégantic, new regulations have yet to be finalized as the railroad and oil industries argue about various proposed provisions…And without regulations, reporting or penalties, the public has only the railroads’ word they are complying with the 50 m.p.h. speed limit…

Before leaving office last year, Deborah A. P. Hersman, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, questioned whether industry representatives and regulators had a tombstone mentality when it came to oil trains. If nobody dies, she suggested, there’s no pressure to act. So far, the tombstones have all been in Canada.

Does any of this sound like a successful industry in a modern, progressive nation?

Like all of the 19th Century economy remaining in North America, we witness only the greed of those who inherited, stole or otherwise acquired control of the assets of out-of-date industries – and the technology that came with it. If unionized, they bring in every flavor of corrupt politician to take away rights and safe practices. Any portion of their fiefdom out of sight of urban watchdogs is fair game for ignoring safety. And state governments – who could count on corporations and Congress to actually work together at building out and growing, say, in 1955 – haven’t admitted to themselves that maintaining this old infrastructure is necessary; so, let’s just ignore it. Maybe it will go away?

That will happen the same way highway bridges and overpasses will heal themselves with magic concrete and gasoline will stay under $3 a gallon right on into the 22nd Century.

If you wondered who started the rumor about Coke being a healthy snack?


It wasn’t this mythical dude…

If a column in honor of heart health suggests a can of Coke as a snack, you might want to read the fine print.

The world’s biggest beverage maker, which struggles with declining soda consumption in the U.S., is working with fitness and nutrition experts who suggest its cola as a healthy treat. In February, for instance, several wrote online pieces for American Heart Month, with each including a mini-can of Coke or small soda as a snack idea.

The mentions – which appeared on nutrition blogs and other sites including those of major newspapers – show the many ways food companies work behind the scenes to cast their products in a positive light, often with the help of third parties who are seen as trusted authorities…

For Coca-Cola Co., the public relations strategy with health experts in February focused on the theme of “Heart Health & Black History Month.” The effort yielded a radio segment and multiple online pieces.

One post refers to a “refreshing beverage option such as a mini can of Coca-Cola.” Another suggests “portion-controlled versions of your favorites, like Coca-Cola mini cans, packs of almonds or pre-portioned desserts for a meal.”

The focus on the smaller cans isn’t surprising. Sugary drinks have come under fire for fueling obesity rates and related ills, and the last time Coke’s annual U.S. soda volume increased was in 2002, according to the industry tracker Beverage Digest. More recently, the company is pushing its mini-cans as a guilt-free way to enjoy cola. The cans also fetch higher prices on a per ounce basis, so even if people are drinking less soda, Coke says it can grow sales.

Most of the pieces suggesting mini-Cokes say in the bios that the author is a “consultant” for food companies, including Coca-Cola. Some add that the ideas expressed are their own. One column is marked at the bottom as a “sponsored article,” which is an ad designed to look like a regular story. It ran on more than 1,000 sites, including those of major news outlets around the country. The other posts were not marked as sponsored content, but follow a similar format…

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a professional group for dietitians, says in its code of ethics that practitioners promote and endorse products “only in a manner that is not false and misleading.” A spokesman for the academy did not respond when asked if the posts on mini-Cokes meet those guidelines.

I don’t expect corporations deriving profits from selling deadly crap masquerading as food – to admit their products are deadly crap masquerading as food. And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised they can find a number of greedy fools willing to prostitute their professional credentials to pimp their products.

I think it would be closer to ethical if [1] they didn’t get away with deliberate lies, publishing bought-and-paid-for consultants to pretend there is value to their products – and [2] it might be useful in a time and place like the 21st Century in the United States – if mass media attempted something approaching truth-telling in the adverts they’re paid to distribute.

I can hardly think of crap less likely to be a useful snack than a can of Coke.