Unanticipated Consequences Along the Railroad

I’m seeing news flashes describing the chemical spills that resulted from a derailment in Ohio – some sound like the chemical equivalent of Chernobyl.  Others point out that Pete Buttigieg just isn’t up to the job as secretary of transportation.   

Rail transportation is a fairly intense business from what I hear – and, since the mainline is about a mile away, I hear the trains and the whistles.  Since the spur line is even closer, I hear that little train.  Living close to the trains and listening to the whistles doesn’t qualify me to critique the handling of chemical spills – but I have read Merton’s 1936 article “Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”  It isn’t a great stretch to move Merton’s observations into the present – and I have often assigned the essay as a reading assignment. 

Still, as I read the wailings of environmental degradation in East Palestine, I think back to a simpler time, with a derailment near the continental divide, and a huge grain spill.  I have no idea who made the decision to bury the grain, pull the damaged cars out, and get things back to normal as quickly as possible – but, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I can describe the knowledge that wasn’t considered in deciding how to handle the problem. 

“Party animal” takes on a whole new meaning when you’re talking about drunken grizzly bears, and Glacier National Park officials want no more of them, thank you. 

They are taking special steps to ensure that hundreds of tons of corn spilled along the park’s southern edge in a train derailment Sunday doesn’t ripen into a boozy smorgasbord for all the bears in the area – as happened in 1985.Burlington Northern crews tried to clean up the 1985 corn spill but left much that couldn’t be salvaged. Bears, both black and grizzly, were often spotted feeding on the corn. 

By spring of 1987 the corn had fermented, and officials began receiving reports about bears getting tipsy after eating the spoiled spillage.”

Obviously, the railroad decision-maker had no significant experience with moonshining.  He had no idea that burying the damp grain next to the stream would create an environment favorable to its fermentation . . . the old moonshiners would have known.  They handled grain similarly as they made the mash that they would distill into whisky.  While we weren’t moonshining, Dad had us handle grain that way to feed the pig – we didn’t have a grinder, and mash was more digestible than unprocessed barley.   

Which leads to the next area of ignorance – both bears and pigs like alcohol infused meals.  I’m no biologist – but as an aggy, I have some general information.  I’m not surprised that grizzlies can smell out and dig down to fermented mash.  I’m not surprised that drunken grizzlies can be obnoxious.  Still, knowledge of fermenting mash, grizzly digging behavior, and how bears behave when drunk isn’t probably part of a railroad damage control man’s preparatory curriculum. 

At any rate, the unanticipated consequence of the grain spill by the divide was signage, telling drivers not to stop along this stretch of highway.  The signs didn’t read “the grain is in the valley, and the griz is on the grain” – but that’s what they meant. 

As Merton reminds us, not all unanticipated consequences are bad.  The problem is, we tend to focus on solving one problem, and we fail to anticipate the other problems that our solutions can create. 

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