Unravelling the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

People | Communities

By Hannah Corsini, The Kingfisher writer

Published June 27th, 2023

On the 3rd of February, 2023, 50 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, a small town situated on Ohio’s border with Pennsylvania, after a fire broke out in one of its rail cars. Now, more than two months on, uncertainty lingers around what the derailment means for both the area and its people.

The rail car which caught fire was carrying plastic pellets, with other cars carrying hazardous materials such as vinyl chloride. Subsequent responses to the crash have criticised both Norfolk Southern for the occurrence of the crash and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for their handling of the aftermath.

Aftermath of the train derailment. | FracTracker Alliance / Flickr

Just how dangerous is vinyl chloride?

Vinyl chloride is a gas that is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a versatile plastic material used in a variety of applications including construction and automotive devices. Long-term exposure to vinyl chloride can be harmful to human health, and it is classified as a known human carcinogen.

The vinyl chloride industry is worth an estimated $20 billion and to date, more than 80,000 workers have been exposed to the chemical. A 2010 study found an unusually high prevalence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) in vinyl chloride industry workers.

When the liver is working normally, one of its main functions is detoxification: the breaking down of toxic substances in the body. When the liver cells take in too much fat or do not break it down quickly enough, large droplets of fat form and take up the cell body.

This is fatty liver disease, which is often associated with alcoholism and it can progress to cirrhosis or liver cancer. However, in the case of vinyl chloride workers, fatty liver disease is referred to as ‘non-alcoholic’ (NAFLD), as the people affected by it have no pattern of alcoholism.

‘Workers had been exposed to far higher cumulative concentrations [of vinyl chloride] in workplaces.’

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates a vinyl chloride exposure limit of less than one part per million over eight hours, but the workers whose livers were biopsied during the study had been exposed to far higher cumulative concentrations in workplaces—failing to meet OSHA standards.

There is not a vast amount of research on exposure to vinyl chloride, so the mechanism by which it causes NAFLD is unknown. It is also hard to assess its toxicity in both moderate and low but cumulative doses.

The train cars in the East Palestine crash were carrying 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride. After the crash, the temperature of one of the cars carrying the vinyl chloride kept continuously rising—presenting a major concern. When vinyl chloride gets hot, it polymerises and explodes. To avoid an explosion, crews released the chemical into a nearby trench to burn it in a controlled manner.

‘Hundreds of residents crowded into the gym to get answers from officials on the health and safety of the community after the train derailment and controlled release and burn of hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals.’ | Courtesy of Ryan Lowe / Ideastream Public Media

As a result, waterways in the town were disturbed, over 40,000 aquatic animals were killed in the aftermath and landowners have been advised to check for toxicants in their soil and private waters.

The current concern for health officials is that burning the vinyl chloride may have released dioxins, a group of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and an unintended byproduct of industrial processes which use or burn chlorine. Short-term exposure to dioxins has been linked to skin lesions and impaired liver function, whilst chronic exposure has been shown to cause various types of cancer and impact the development of foetuses.

How did the EPA respond?

Surprisingly, the EPA delayed testing for dioxins. Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, ordered Norfolk Southern to conduct dioxin tests on March 2nd, 2023, nearly a month after the initial derailment.

Regan has met with various East Palestine residents and officials over the last few weeks, promising to hold Norfolk Southern, ‘accountable for jeopardising the health and safety of the community.’ The company has already been ordered to pay for all necessary clean-up, now being ordered to test for dioxins.

As sampling for dioxins is expensive and time-consuming it may be months before conclusive answers are produced on the true impact of the derailment. However, the EPA’s Deputy Press Secretary, Khanya Brann, stated in a press release that the agency would ensure Norfolk Southern’s sampling plan is ‘as protective as possible.’

Just a few weeks after the crash, Michael Regan similarly declared that the robust air and water monitoring thus far had shown no risks presented to the residents of East Palestine.

‘Jordan Stovka, local to a nearby town, describes a ‘persistent, nagging headache’ and an ‘environmental anxiety.’’

However, residents disagree. Writing for The Philadelphia, Jordan Stovka, local to a nearby town, describes a ‘persistent, nagging headache’ and an ‘environmental anxiety.’ Resident Jim Stewart, whose home has been in East Palestine for the last six decades, demanded to know whether the Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw ‘shortened his life’.

For citizens like Stewart, whose dream of selling his house and retiring may now be jeopardised, the platitudes and promises of the EPA and Norfolk Southern are not enough.

Norfolk Southern has committed $7.5 million to an East Palestine community relief fund. So far, over 5,500 tonnes of contaminated soil have been disposed of, and seven million gallons of wastewater removed.

Towards the end of February, the EPA was forced to enact a one-day pause after officials in Texas and Michigan raised concerns about waste from the derailment coming to disposal facilities in their states. State officials such as Lina Hidalgo (Texas) and Eric Holcomb (Indiana) have complained about the transport of the waste to sites in their states.

A Northfolk Southern train. | Emmett Tullos / Flickr

With the transport and storage of toxic waste in itself a highly complex and regulated procedure—overseen by federal, local and state governments—experts warn that it may take years for East Palestine to be genuinely cleaned up.

Meanwhile, members of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) team investigating the effects of the derailment fell ill earlier this month, with seven of fifteen investigators coming down with symptoms such as coughs, sore throats, headaches and nausea.

Residents of the area have reported similar symptoms, leading to heightened fears of long-term health conditions generated as a consequence of the crash. Resident Audrey DeSanzo told CNN: ‘It’s not all in these people’s heads that are getting rashes, that are having conjunctivitis, the pinkeye, from chemicals.’

On May 31st, 2023, the EPA reported that ‘since the evacuation order was lifted, vinyl chloride in the community has not been found sustained at or above the intermediate screening level (0.05 mg/m3) in air.’ These estimates suggest that the daily exposure is not expected to cause health effects over an exposure duration of 15 to 364 days, which is also due to exposure being more diffused outdoors.

Could this have been avoided?

In the USA, train derailments are extremely common, with 1,154 of them occurring in 2022, and exceeding an average of three derailments per day. While this represents only a small percentage of the vast amount of rail cars which travel across the country each year, it still presents a concern.

‘Members of the CDC team investigating the effects of the derailment fell ill earlier this month.’

The National Train Safety Board, commenting on the Norfolk Southern train derailment, declared it 100% preventable. The wheel bearing of the rail car where the initial fire broke out had passed through two detectors with a raised temperature, but this temperature had not been high enough to trigger an alarm until the third detector, at which point the train engineer applied the emergency brake.

On March 14th, a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern was filed by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who stated ‘Ohio should not have to bear the financial burden of Norfolk Southern’s glaring negligence.’

Since then a lawsuit has also been filed against Norfolk Southern by the US Department of Justice, alleging both violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and also gross negligence by Norfolk Southern, who stand accused of having increased operating profit whilst massively decreasing operator costs over the last few years.

Decreased costs include ‘reductions in spending to repair, service and maintain locomotives and freight cars, perform train inspections and pay engine crews and train crews.’

In the USA, train derailments are extremely common, with 1,154 of them occurring in 2022. | Nick Sorockin / Unsplash

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuits, proper investment needs to be given to the health and safety and maintenance of US trains—particularly those involved in the transport of hazardous chemicals—to prevent disasters such as these from occurring again.

A bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown and Republican Senator J.D Vance, is making its way through Congress. Brown stated that ‘railroad company lobbyists have spent years fighting our every effort to make our railroads safer, cutting more than 30% of their workers in the last ten years.’

This statement, and these events, highlight how social and environmental issues are linked—putting profit before people, and the environment, can lead to disastrous consequences such as those seen in East Palestine.

The EPA continues to monitor air as the cleanup is ongoing. Norfolk Southern plans to excavate the north Pleasant Drive track up to mid-June. Further on, 23 locations around the community are still being monitored. For residents affected please contact the EPA through their Information Line: 330-775-6517 and/or on their website.

Featured Image: FracTracker Alliance | Flickr

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