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Video screenshot from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board depicting the scene of the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Ohio Train Derailment Creates Far-Reaching Implications

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Tuesday morning that it was taking control of the cleanup from a freight train derailment in Ohio that resulted in the burning of hazardous chemicals.

The rail company, Norfolk Southern, will be responsible for carrying out the clean-up measures and paying for them. If Norfolk Southern fails to comply, the Associated Press reported that the EPA plans to perform the work itself and seek triple damages from the company.

“The Norfolk Southern train derailment has upended hte lives of East Palestine families, and EPA's order will ensure the company is held accountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of this community,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a statement. “Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they've inflicted on this community.”

The Derailment

On the evening of 3 Febraury, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, a town near the Ohio and Pennsylvania border. The train had 150 cars, including 20 containing material deemed hazardous. Of the three dozen derailed cars, 11 contained hazardous material.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will not have an initial analysis of the derailment for at least another week. Surveillance video from a camera approximately 20 miles from the derailment shows sparks under one of the cars as it rolled by. An NTSB investigative update bulletin issued 14 February said the video footage was consistent with “a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure.”

Five of the derailed cars contained vinyl chloride. The tanker cars did their job and were not breached during the accident. However, fire burning around one of the cars concerned officials who said it could lead to massive explosion.

For two days, residents except those closest to the derailment had been told to shelter in place. However, the danger posed by the incendiary vinyl chloride led to a wider evacuation of the area. Officials decided to drain the vinyl chloride and burn it, leading to huge plumes of black smoke that billowed from the site. Two days later—three days after the initial evacuation order—people were allowed back into the area after officials deemed it safe to do so.



Near- and Long-Term Health and Environmental Effects

One of the major concerns is the effects of vinyl chloride. Inhalation can lead to respiratory distress and neurological symptoms. Chronic exposure is linked to liver damage and liver cancer. When burned, vinyl chloride decomposes into hydrogen chloride, which is corrosive to human tissue and poses a particular threat when inhaled, and phosgene, widely used during World War I as a chemical weapon.

Norfolk Southern reported at least four other hazardous chemicals were among the substances carried in train cars that derailed: ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, and butyl acrylate.

The Ohio Health Department opened a clinic for people in the area on 20 February. The New Republic reported 10 days after the derailment that many residents have reported difficulty breathing, skin irritations, other ailments, and several dead animals.

“Reports of suffering animals, from dogs and cats to fish and chickens, continue to accumulate,” The New Republic reported. “Taylor Holzer, an animal caretaker, lost one of his foxes. Others are in poor condition with faces swollen, stomachs upset, and eyes watering. Holzer’s dog, who hadn’t returned home until after the evacuation order was lifted, has begun coughing and gagging.”

On Saturday, 18 February, the EPA said it had conducted indoor air screenings in 533 homes in the area and had not found any dangerous results. Th EPA will continue to test air quality in the area until after the soil around the toxic spill has been removed.

To try to protect water in the area, Norfolk Southern installed a dam and water bypass system for Sulphur Run, the closest stream to the derailment. A letter from the EPA to Norfolk Southern dated 10 February said substances released during the incident had been observed and detected in Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, the Ohio River, and in storm drains.

The Ohio State EPA tested the water in East Palestine and said it was safe to drink, publicized with Ohio Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted and others engaged in a toast of tap water.

In a release, Norfolk Southern said “4,500 cubic yards of contaminated soil have been excavated and 1.5 million gallons of contaminated water have already been collected from the derailment site. The material will be transported to landfills and disposal facilities that are designed to accept it safely in accordance with state and federal regulations.”

Political and Reputational Fallout

As could be expected in the aftermath of such an incident, residents and authorities have said Norfolk Southern is accountable for the incident. From the podium of the White House Briefing Room, President Joe Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said, “We’re going to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.”

From Ohio Governor Mike DeWine: “Norfolk Southern is responsible for this problem. We fully expect them to live up to what the CEO told me, and that is that they will pay for everything. If they don’t, we’ve got an attorney general here.”

The Washington Post ran an article on the ways and means Norfolk Southern has fought regulation of the rail freight industry:

The meeting illustrates the two faces of Norfolk Southern and the railroad industry at large. It presents itself as a backbone of the nation’s economy — a safe and relatively green way to transport freight. At the same time, labor leaders and federal officials say, it aggressively resists proposed regulation by Washington, opposing new safety standards while searching for loopholes through existing rules.

In addition to the not-so-veiled threat of a lawsuit, the Ohio governor, generally known as pro-business and antiregulation, seemed to question whether regulations governing hazardous freight went far enough. The train that derailed was not classified as a high hazardous materials train because most of the freight was not hazardous.

“We need to look at this,” DeWine said, “and Congress needs to take a look at how these things are handled. We should know when we have trains carrying hazardous material that are going through the state of Ohio.”

Last week, Norfolk Southern pulled its plan to have company representatives at a town hall meeting in East Palestine, saying the company was concerned for the safety of its representatives.  

“We have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties,” The New York Times quoted from the Norfolk Southern statement.

In addition, the incident has raised interstate tensions. With the derailment occurring a quarter mile from the state line, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro questioned the decision to release and burn vinyl chloride and thereby releasing toxic chemicals into the air.

“Norfolk Southern failed to explore all potential courses of action, including some that may have kept the rail line closed longer but could have resulted in a safer overall approach for first responders, residents, and the environment,” Shapiro said. “While I appreciate that responding to train derailments presents an array of complex challenges, failure to adhere to well-accepted standards of practice related to incident management and prioritizing an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line injected unnecessary risk and created confusion in the process.”

A Sign of Infrastructure Deterioration

A pair of researchers from RAND Corporation, a thinktank focusing on public policy challenges, wrote an opinion piece describing the East Palestine train derailment as yet another example of a U.S. infrastructure neglect problem that should be seen as a major threat to national security.

Other recent signs, they said, include the recent water crises in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi, as well as Deepwater and Taylor oils spills, and “countless other unnamed and underreported disasters.”

The researchers explain:

The rail disaster was not the result of an external attack, and although the specific reasons for the accident are still under investigation, it is no stretch to imagine that it was a slow-moving (PDF), internally created disaster of neglected infrastructure, leaner staffing models and watered-down safety requirements—a string of decisions favoring efficiency over safety, all resulting in the routing of hazardous cargo through places where people live. The implications of this disaster will no doubt unfold over decades, with invisible contamination hitting already vulnerable people and environments, and lingering long after the cleanup crews leave.

Whether it’s a threat to clean water, food supplies, or clean air, they proposed that national security is the appropriate lens through which to view such possibilities.

“How to reduce the risk of the slow disasters unfolding with greater frequency and increasing severity is already well known,” they wrote. “It takes investing in decaying infrastructure and hiring people to run and maintain it.”