Ohio train derailment

The recent Ohio train derailment poses a large environmental concern due to the vinyl chloride and its associated health risks for the residents of East Palestine. // Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

With some considering the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio the worst environmental disaster in recent years, efforts are still being made to clean the environment and ensure the safety of the surrounding residents. Long-term effects of the spill are not known yet, but the many parties involved hope for a favorable outcome on all fronts. 

In the evening of Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern Railway train traveling eastbound suddenly derailed in the small Ohio town. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the train crew received no alarms at the time to a wheel bearing on one of the cars overheating, which failed and caused 38 cars to derail in total. The accident also started a fire that damaged 12 other cars in the train. 

No one was injured at the time of the derailment, but the contents of the train constituted another threat to the surrounding area. While some cars contained harmless items like frozen vegetables, the NTSB reported that some of the impacted tank cars carried “combustible liquids, flammable liquids and flammable gas, including vinyl chloride.”

Vinyl chloride is primarily used to manufacture polyvinyl chloride, a hard plastic used in a variety of products; however, vinyl chloride is also a carcinogen that burns easily, likely posing the greatest risk to those around the derailment. The burning of this chemical can release other dangerous species, like carbon monoxide and hydrogen chloride, adding to the potential health risks imposed on East Palestine.

With many hazardous chemicals threatening the surrounding people and environment, authorities quickly worked to contain the spills. Investigators from the NTSB arrived to the scene and were joined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the next day. Norfolk Southern also responded to the scene and began efforts to contain and dispose of the hazardous materials.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered nearby residents to evacuate the area immediately while authorities began a controlled release of some of the chemicals. Some tank cars had gases trapped inside while burning, mounting a growing risk of an explosion. Norfolk Southern was responsible for releasing and draining the contained gases, and started and finished the job on Feb. 6 as reported by the New York Times.

The decision to burn the dangerous chemicals has been met with some criticism as the release created a giant plume of smoke across the small town. Some people fear that the interactions between chemicals while being burned could create new toxic species that are not being monitored. The New York Times reports that pollutants called dioxins have been a main concern of the East Palestine community, and if these chemicals have been formed, they could have a long-lasting effect on the environment.

After the abatement of the urgent threats, the EPA has continued to monitor the air and water around East Palestine. They began surveying the air and water supplies around the derailment site on Feb. 4 and have continued doing so since then. While they have not detected hazardous levels of any toxic gases associated with the derailment, the EPA found contaminated runoff that they attempted to collect from local streams.

Although no air contaminants have been found, the New York Times reported that residents in the surrounding area “have complained of headaches, coughs, rashes and other classic symptoms of chemical exposure.” Testing by Norfolk Southern and government agencies has not produced any cause of these ailments. Many residents also report still smelling chemical odors in the air and water, but officials have tried to remind the public that this does not necessarily indicate toxicity.

Contamination of local water sources have had a more apparent impact. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported that 7.5 miles of stream were affected, resulting in the death of around 3,500 fish. Experts assume that the vinyl chloride in the waterways has dissipated by now but there are still concerns that the contaminated water may have seeped into the soil and will affect wells around the site. 

The involved agencies and corporations will continue to monitor the situation over the coming days, with relocation resources and environmental screenings being offered to the residents of East Palestine. Norfolk Southern will be in charge of the remediation efforts around the derailment site, especially after some harsh encouragement from the EPA.

The EPA notified the company on Feb. 10 that it considers Norfolk Southern responsible for the accident, stating in a letter that they should “reimburse EPA for costs incurred to date and to voluntarily perform or finance the response activities that EPA has determined or will determine are required at the [derailment] Site.”

With mounting pressure from all sides, Norfolk Southern “announced that it will now excavate the soil and replace the tracks in the derailment area as part of an enhanced remediation plan” in a company press release on Feb. 22. 

Work immediately began on these efforts for de-escalating the situation, although it is unclear when the excavation will be completed. Trains will still be able to run on the railway in the meantime, restoring some semblance of normality to East Palestine and its shaken residents.