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Ohio Train Derails Carrying Tons of Hazardous Chemicals

Last Updated: February 16, 2023
An aerial view of the train derailment several days after the incident, on the 8th of February, in East Palestine, Ohio. 
Photograph: MediaPunch/Rex/Shutterstock

When Did the Ohio Trail Derailment Occur?

Around 9 p.m. on February 3rd, 2023.

Where Did the Train Derail?

A few miles west of East Palestine, Ohio.

What Happened in Ohio?

A Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The train had been carrying chemicals and combustible materials. Its engine was pulling 150 cars on the route from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania. On Valentine’s Day, the National Transportation Safety Board reported that 38 cars had derailed, causing a fire that damaged 12 more cars.

Fire erupted from the wreckage, exposing the potentially 176,000 residents in the surrounding areas to hazardous fumes.

Authorities initially ordered 1,500–2,000 residents on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border to evacuate, as Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio raised alarms about more explosions. On Feb. 6th, the authorities created an evacuation zone and actually burned off some of the remaining cargo to neutralize toxic fumes.

In a quiet village of about 4,700 residents about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, the townsfolk are in fact regularly in danger from a rail shipping industry with waning safety measures.

Why Did the Norfolk Southern Train Derail?

Train derailments happen all the time. In 2017, regulations requiring braking system upgrades for trains carrying hazardous materials were rolled back. And what’s worse, is that they’re holding more and more chemicals while safety and quality assurance go down the drain.

It’s estimated that roughly 25 million Americans live in an oil train blast zone and if the derailment occurred just a bit more east, hazardous smoke would be rolling in downtown Pittsburgh.

Ron Kaminkow, an Amtrak locomotive engineer and former Norfolk Southern freight engineer says, “The Palestine wreck is the tip of the iceberg and a red flag.” Kaminkow is secretary for the Railroad Workers United, a non-profit labor group that coordinates with the nation’s rail unions.

“The railroads are playing Russian roulette with Pittsburgh,” he said. “We are a prime candidate for a major derailment and explosion.”

According to the US transportation department (DoT) in 2020, they approved a rule to allow liquified natural gas, or LNG, to be shipped via rail with no additional safety regulations. Trains can now run 100 or more tank cars filled with 30,000 gallons of the substance, largely from shale fields to saltwater ports.

Local leaders, unions, fire departments, and the NTSB opposed the decision.

“The risks of catastrophic LNG releases in accidents is too great not to have operational controls in place before large blocks of tank cars and unit trains proliferate,” the NTSB commented on the proposed rule.

Just 22 train tank cars filled with LNG hold the same amount of energy as the Hiroshima bomb, a coalition of environmental groups wrote in comments to regulators opposing the LNG rail rule change in 2020. That is raising fears of a catastrophe if a proposed LNG port is built in New Jersey, which could take shipments from two 100-car trains daily that would run through nearby metro Philadelphia.

The NTSB said the East Palestine fire would be nothing compared to the effects of a similar derailment of LNG.

Under the Biden administration, the transportation department proposed a suspension of the Trump-era LNG rule allowing the substance to be transported via rail.

Still pending.

The threat was attributed by Railroad Workers United to the removal of safety protocols and a reduction in staff inspections in the rail industry. The East Palestine train was rushed, according to the non-profit, and although the exact reason for this hasn’t been established, it seems the train wasn’t thoroughly inspected.

The various potential causes of the East Palestine train derailment accidents are numerous. A crack in a track ignored by rail companies caused a 2018 derailment, while another train randomly hit a dump truck.

The East Palestine accident is likely to have been caused by a train car’s broken axle. The NTSB and the Environmental Protection Agency were both involved in the investigation, which was launched by authorities. The NTSB said it was looking at tank car fittings, the locomotive event data recorder, and surveillance footage from a home that appeared to show a wheel bearing failing just before the derailment.

Who Is Impacted by Trail Derailment?

The nation’s rail force has fallen below 200,000, the lowest level ever, and down from 1 million at its height. This represents the worst layoffs (2018–2019) in the railroad industry since the Great Recession.

According to the US Department of Transportation, about 4.5m tons of toxic chemicals roll through by rail annually and an average of 12,000 rail cars carrying hazardous materials pass through cities and towns every day.

The latest accident killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013. A runaway train exploded.

In February 2020, a crude oil train derailed and exploded outside Guernsey, Saskatchewan.

A week later an ethanol train in Kentucky derailed and erupted into flames.

According to the public health advocacy group Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh (RPPP), the Pittsburgh region alone has seen eight train derailments over the last five years. Nationally, about 1,700 train derailments each year.

According to RPPP, metropolitan Pittsburgh presently receives up to 50% of the volatile Bakken crude oil refined on the east coast, and 176,000 Pittsburgh residents reside in the derailment blast zone.

Residents feared for their health as concerns mounted about the effect the derailment and the fire could have on the environment and the transportation network.

How Long Will the Exposure Last?

The E.P.A. said that about 20 rail cars were reported to have been carrying hazardous materials. The list contains:

  • Vinyl chloride
  • Butyl acrylate
  • Ethylhexyl acrylate
  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl ethers

All were released to the surrounding air, surface soil, and surface waters. These types of gases (or mixtures/reactions of them) can cause serious respiratory illness or death.

On February 12th, the E.P.A. reported it had not detected contaminants at “levels of concern” around East Palestine. Furthermore, the E.P.A. reported it had not detected vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride after screening the air inside 396 homes.

The West Virginia subsidiary of American Water reported on February 12th no detection of changes in the water at its Ohio River intake site. As an extra safety precaution, they installed a secondary intake on the Guyandotte River as an alternate source with enhanced treatment processes.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the spill affected about seven and a half miles of stream and killed an estimated 3,500 fish.

Tiffani Kavalec, the surface water division chief for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, detected two chemical contaminants in some Ohio River tributaries. Water treatment processes should filter the contaminants out, she said.

Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, a Democrat criticized Norfolk Southern in a public letter for “inaccurate information and conflicting modeling” of the impact of the derailment.

Additionally, the trust of residents of East Palestine in state officials and in Norfolk Southern decreases daily. Residents say “no one has clearly communicated the scale of the disaster and the public health threats it could pose months or years later.”

Does Anyone Know What’s Really Happening?

Last week, hundreds of East Palestine residents huddled in a school gym seeking answers. They desperately asked local and state officials questions about how such a disaster could be avoided and whether their water was really safe to drink.

Representatives from Norfolk Southern were not present, but Norfolk Southern claims it has provided more than $1.2 million to families to help cover evacuation costs.

There have been no reports of injuries or deaths. Some locals posted pictures of dead animals on social media, while others claimed to have smelled chemicals and experienced headaches and nausea.

“With chemical spills, the threats to human health can linger long after the emergency has been dealt with,” said Erik D. Olson, a senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Senator J.D. Vance, Republican of Ohio, said in a statement on Feb. 13 that it was a “complex environmental disaster” requiring long-term study. Real questions need to be asked about the braking systems of any train passing through even sparsely populated areas.

Trains aren’t supposed to derail.

They need to analyze deeply the durability of the repair parts and the Transportation Department’s overall regulatory approach to the safety and well-being of the rail system.

If knowing is half of the battle, then being prepared is 80%. As we stay informed of tragic events that discomfort any American, it’s important to create practical takeaway points for our survival lessons.

  • Trains derail all of the time. Be aware.
  • A set of gas masks for the family is a good thing to have in storage.
  • While secondary water filters provided by the authorities are great, I trust my own.

And lastly, evacuations happen. Are you ready?

“Always Be Ready” Max

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