Reported by Laura Clawson for Daily Kos.
Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, have been told it’s safe to go back to their homes after a train derailment forced the controlled release and burn of toxic chemicals—but they’re not all so sure about that. Some complain about lingering chemical odors and wonder what that means for the air they’re breathing and the water they’re drinking.
On Sunday, a local news channel reported three chemicals—ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene—on the train in addition to the vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate previously reported. “There’s a lot of what-ifs, and we’re going to be looking at this thing 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the line and wondering, ‘Gee, cancer clusters could pop up, you know, well water could go bad,” Sil Caggiano, a former Youngtown Fire Department battalion chief and hazmat expert told First News.
This is not an idle concern, despite official assurances that everything is fine.
“In 2012, a train crashed in Paulsboro, spilling 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, the same chemical involved in the East Palestine spill,” Julia Malleck reported at Quartz. “A 2014 study conducted by the New Jersey Department of Health found that half of local residents had health problems caused by the chemical spill.”
Caggiano advised local residents to get their health checked now so that, if they develop health problems later, they will have a documented baseline to help track any possible effects.
Although officials have told residents it’s safe to go home, there will be ongoing monitoring and cleanup efforts.
“Initially, with most environmental spills, it is difficult to determine the exact amount of material that has been released into the air, water, and soil. The assessment phase that will occur after the emergency is over will help to determine that information,” an Ohio EPA spokesperson told CNN.
Cincinnati city manager Sheryl Long told the city council that the Greater Cincinnati Water Works is monitoring water quality in the Ohio River, since Cincinnati is downstream of the derailment. “Low levels of butyl acrylate have been detected in samples of the Ohio River downstream of the incident, but currently far upstream of Cincinnati,” she reported. According to the CDC, “Acute exposure to butyl acrylate vapor can cause redness, tearing, and irritation of the eyes, runny nose, scratchy throat, difficulty breathing, and redness and cracking of the skin.” Presumably, at “low levels” in water, we’re talking about lesser and/or different effects than at acute exposure to vapor, but it’s concerning nonetheless. Cincinnati continues to monitor water quality and, if needed, “can shut the river intakes for a period of time to avoid the compound altogether.”
Residents of the evacuation zone can request air monitoring in their homes, though some question why it’s not being done automatically. They now live with serious fear for their health and their futures.
“That’s where we’ve been raising our kids, finishing college, buying a business, and that’s been our place,” East Palestine resident and business owner Ben Ratner told CNN. “In the future, are we going to have to sell the house? Is it worth any money at this point?”
Four lawsuits have been filed against Norfolk Southern, the company that owns the derailed train. The company says it is reimbursing residents for the costs of the evacuation, but it’s not being very forthcoming about how much it is offering and how long its support will last. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has said, “They’re the ones who created the problem. It’s their liability. They’re the ones who ought to pay for it.” We’ll see how that goes.
Norfolk Southern should also be under scrutiny for how its safety and staffing practices may have contributed to the derailment. After all, it wasn’t long ago that freight rail workers were threatening to strike over staffing cuts that they said compromised safety, with bare-minimum crews operating ever-longer trains while working grueling schedules that left them exhausted.
Greg Regan, the president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, explained to the Associated Press one way railroad company staffing cuts could have made a difference in this case: Inspectors used to have two to three minutes to check out each train car. Now it’s down to 30 to 45 seconds per car. It’s not hard to see how they could miss things, given that. The derailment was caused by an axle failure.
“They’re really just trying to squeeze as much productivity out of these workers as they can,” Regan told the AP. “And when you’re focused on timing and rushing, unfortunately, sometimes things can fall through the cracks.”
While rail is one of the safest forms of transportation, it should be a major concern for everyone if the freight rail companies are going to continue cutting the workforce responsible for keeping things safe.
Read more here.