By: Kerry Garrett
On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train containing hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The spillage of vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol and other chemicals from the collapse of 38 cars ignited a large fire.
Federal investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the derailment was likely caused by an overheated wheel bearing, but that it was too early to determine what could have prevented the incident.
In an attempt to prevent further contamination, or a potentially deadly explosion, officials ordered a controlled burning of the chemicals to release the toxic fumes from the area.
An evacuation order was issued for residents of the surrounding area, but it was lifted nine days after the event. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that the municipal water quality in Columbiana county did not detect contaminants at a “level of concern”. While the chemical plume is traveling down the Ohio river and may affect areas downstream, the concentration of chemicals will decrease significantly as it moves.
Nevertheless, there were overwhelming reports of sizzling, film-covered water; animals and pets dying after drinking the water; and the development of rashes, burning and itchy eyes, burning lungs and other illnesses. Over 40,000 fish and other river-dwelling animals died because of the pollution.
What is even more concerning was that the only publicly available data on the water quality was that taken by the railroad contractor of Norfolk Southern, rather than an independent third party.
When vinyl chloride interacts with water in the environment, it can produce byproducts such as hydrogen chloride, which can cause corrosive damage to the body and pulmonary edema, or excessive fluid in the lungs. Other chemicals in the spill can cause difficulty breathing, kidney damage, dizziness, nausea, headaches, fatigue and more serious illnesses, such as cancer, in high amounts.
Residents of the area expressed their anger and concern at a town hall with Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on Feb. 22. According to CNN, multiple residents testified that they felt sick, unsafe and unsure of their futures.
At the time of publication, the EPA has declared that it will take charge of cleaning up the affected areas, and that Norfolk Southern will be held accountable for the disaster. Norfolk Southern is now responsible for paying all costs, including cleaning and identifying any contaminated water or soil and reimbursing the EPA for all cleaning services offered to the residents of East Palestine.
If the company fails to meet these standards, they will be compelled to pay triple the original price. There are already multiple class-action suits against the company from the affected community, and possibly the Ohio state attorney general.
According to coverage of the event by The Guardian, chemical spills such as the one in East Palestine happen frequently in the U.S.; the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters reported over 30 incidents in the first seven weeks of 2023, ranging from freight derailments to pipeline ruptures to industrial leaks.