Reported by Christopher Wilson and Caitlin Dickson for Yahoo News.
The fallout continues from the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border earlier this month, as local residents file lawsuits and some cast doubt on official assurances about air and water quality.
The derailment and evacuation
On Feb. 3, 50 train cars operated by Norfolk Southern derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, a town of about 5,000 people located 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. That derailment resulted in a massive fire and Gov. Mike DeWine ordering an evacuation on Sunday, Feb. 5.
“Within the last two hours, a drastic temperature change has taken place in a rail car, and there is now the potential of a catastrophic tanker failure which could cause an explosion with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling up to a mile,” DeWine said in a statement, adding that those with children in their home who chose not to evacuate would be subject to arrest.
Last Monday, Norfolk Southern released toxic chemicals from five of the derailed tanker cars in an attempt to preempt a larger explosion. One of the chemicals they were most concerned about was vinyl chloride, a colorless gas used in the making of plastic products. According to the National Cancer Institute, exposure to the gas is associated with “with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), as well as primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma), brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia.” The chemical can also enter water supplies and be ingested.
Concurrent with the releasing of the chemicals, DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro issued a wider evacuation order for the area around East Palestine, stating, “The controlled release process involves the burning of the rail cars’ chemicals, which will release fumes into the air that can be deadly if inhaled. Based on current weather patterns and the expected flow of the smoke and fumes, anyone who remains in the red affected area is facing grave danger of death. Anyone who remains in the yellow impacted area is at a high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage.”
Two days later, DeWine issued a statement that it was safe for residents to return home, saying, “Air quality samples in the area of the wreckage and in nearby residential neighborhoods have consistently showed readings at points below safety screening levels for contaminants of concern. Based on this information, state and local health officials determined that it is now safe for community members to return to their residences.” James Justice of the Environmental Protection Agency echoed this, saying, “All of the readings we’ve been recording in the community have been at normal concentration. … Hundreds and hundreds of data points we’ve collected over the time show the air quality is safe.”
The EPA has yet to release a full list of the chemicals potentially released in the crash. Kurt Kollar of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said that the incident had resulted in the death of fish but that the town’s water supply was safe. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources told Yahoo News on Monday that the estimated stream length affected is approximately 7-and-a-half miles and that the spill killed an estimated 3,500 fish.
Workers place booms in a stream
Workers place booms in a stream as the cleanup continues, Feb. 9. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
“Material does and in this case has entered the water way,” Kollar said, “Actions were taken to minimize that. There were detections through laboratory analysis of it, the unfortunate side [effects] of those were immediately toxic to fish but all the information and data to date is that it’s still been protective to drinking water.”
DeWine said Norfolk Southern would pay for testing for private wells supplying rural homes, saying, “It’s very understandable you may want that testing done before you go back in your house.” The company had initially pledged $25,000 to support “the efforts of the American Red Cross and their temporary community shelters.”
“The burden is upon them is to assure the public that what they do everyday is safe,” DeWine said of Norfolk Southern last week.
“We will hold their feet to the fire — Norfolk Southern’s feet to the fire, as I say, and make sure that everything is done right,” said East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway.
The cause of the derailment is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. It is at least the fourth freight derailment in the state over the last four months on trains operated by Norfolk Southern. In November, just days after 22 freight cars, some carrying rock salt, ran off the tracks in Ravenna Township, another train derailed in Steubenville, dumping trash into the Ohio River. Officials in Sandusky are still waiting on the company to complete cleanup of an October derailment that spilled paraffin wax and blocked an underpass.
“Engineers from the NTSB Materials Laboratory will examine the rail car wheel and axle that potentially experienced a mechanical issue,” the NTSB told Yahoo News in a statement on Monday afternoon. “The tank cars are being decontaminated and NTSB investigators are scheduled to return to Ohio to complete a thorough examination of the tank cars. NTSB investigators continue to review documentation, event recorder data and perform interviews. The preliminary report, which includes all the factual information learned to date, is expected to publish in 30 days.”
Sil Caggiano, a former battalion chief with the Youngstown Fire Department and a hazardous materials expert, was critical of the response: “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open,” he told WKBN, a local TV news affiliate.
“I was surprised when they quickly told the people they can go back home, but then said if they feel like they want their homes tested they can have them tested. I would’ve far rather they did all the testing,” Caggiano said, adding, “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.’”
Unions have blamed derailments on a new scheduling system and on understaffing. Railroad workers attempted to strike last year in order to gain paid sick leave, but the Democratic-controlled Congress passed a law signed by President Biden forcing them back to work, disappointing many labor leaders. Norfolk Southern is one of the rail companies that currently does not offer paid sick leave to its employees.
“They’re really just trying to squeeze as much productivity out of these workers as they can,” Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department coalition, told the Associated Press. “And when you’re focused on timing and rushing, unfortunately sometimes things can fall through the cracks.”
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