Train derails in Eastern Ohio, releases toxic chemicals

A Norfolk Southern freight train traveling through eastern Ohio derailed on Feb. 3, sending 50 of its tanker cars into a massive pile-up. The train was transporting both hazardous and non-hazardous materials when it experienced a technical malfunction of unknown cause. No injuries or fatalities were reported from the immediate incident, as the crew was able to exit the scene before the cars caught fire. Toxic material was released into the air, spewing toxic fumes for several days.

An evacuation order strongly urged residents within a one-mile radius of the scene to leave while local officials and investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and EPA analyzed the safety of the surrounding environment, checking air and water quality levels for toxicity.

Many residents of the village of East Palestine, Ohio were within eyesight of the blaze. Aerial drone footage taken by the NTSB showed the smoldering wreckage of tanker cars scattered across a wide swath of track, fires at the derailment site burning through the next day.

NTSB officials collected evidence from the scene last week, according to a news briefing, and will “methodically and systematically review” that evidence to discover what caused the incident. Their Washington-based laboratory will process and evaluate the recorded data. Preliminary analyses from the lab are typically completed within four to six weeks, but the complete incident report addressing what exactly caused the derailment may take as long as two years before it is publicly available. Serious industrial accidents of this nature can take years in the process of analyzing exactly what went wrong.

Twenty of the derailed cars were identified as transporting hazardous material. Five cars held vinyl chloride, a constituent in the making of PVC pipe and other plastic products. Several others contained residual benzene from previous shipments. These two materials are both highly flammable and vulnerable to drastic temperature changes, such as the rapid fluctuation from that day’s single-digit weather to the heat of the chemical fire.

To lessen the risk of explosion, workers from Norfolk Southern drained off and then burned the hazardous spill from at-risk tank cars in a controlled release, sending the fumes into the atmosphere. Both vinyl chloride and benzene are known carcinogens. Inhaling the toxic chemical fumes can be dangerous, with effects ranging from skin burns to lung damage, and can be deadly in concentrated doses.

Days after the spill, state and federal officials determined the air quality to be below harmful levels. On Feb. 8, residents were advised it was safe for them to return home, contaminant levels measured within the range of acceptability. Wreckage and debris from the pileup were still being cleared away late last week. Schools in the district were closed for the week, and students were sent home to ensure all buildings and systems were ready for their safe return, with officials planning to reopen these buildings on Feb. 13.

The chemical content of the spill is known to be mainly vinyl chloride; however, at this time the extent of chemicals leaching into the environment is not certain. The EPA has told residents the atmospheric chemicals are at safe levels. The health impacts being felt by the local population, however, are hard to ignore.

East Palestine residents have reported sickness and even death among the local pets and livestock. Although necropsies for these animals will be necessary to determine the precise cause of death, many in the community believe chemical exposure to be the cause.

Residents have been observing peculiar behavior in many of their pets since the derailment. According to these pet owners, cats, dogs, and other animals that weren’t able to be evacuated are falling ill and dying at an abnormal rate, with visual evidence that many residents are taking as a harbinger of the illness being quietly inflicted upon them.

Downstream of the chemical release, numerous dead fish have been spotted and are being scooped out of rivers by the Ohio EPA.

Despite surface waters being contaminated to the point of killing aquatic life, officials from the Ohio EPA made reassurances to residents that their well water should be safe for consumption. Environmental remediation efforts are underway in particular areas where the rail incident deposited toxic chemicals.

Concentrated rail networks in the western Pennsylvania and Ohio region make the threat of rail accidents a foremost issue for public safety. Pittsburgh’s aging rail infrastructure raises the threat of a similar train disaster within the city, and the dense population around city tracks multiplies the potential for a deadly event if a similar situation were to occur. The NTSB’s vehicle recorder lab will be working to determine what caused the accident and to make any necessary safety recommendations to mitigate the risk of future derailments.