A plume of dark smoke rose over East Palestine, Ohio, in early February, prompting a mandatory evacuation of village residents. A Norfolk Southern train carrying several hazardous chemicals suffered catastrophic mechanical failure, resulting in a derailment. Authorities feared that the flammable chemicals could catch fire in a massive explosion of shrapnel and poison, and decided to vent and burn the carriages’ contents to mitigate the potential for further destruction.
More than a week after the train derailed in Ohio, information is still leaking out about what exactly happened and the risk East Palestine’s 5,000 residents – and the millions in the neighboring region – may face as a result of the accident.
Here’s everything we know about the train derailment, its causes and what effect it has – and can have – on people and the environment.
On February 3, at around 9:00 pm, a 150-car Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals and other materials suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure, sending the cars off the tracks near the village of East Palestine, Ohio.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, a preliminary investigation found that a wheel bearing in one of the railcars overheated and failed moments before the accident.
Of the train’s 150 carriages, 38 derailed, including 10 of the 20 carrying hazardous materials.
Five of the train’s carriages were carrying a chemical called vinyl chloride, a colorless, dangerous, flammable gas used in the production of PVC plastic and vinyl products. These cars were not tampered with, but authorities feared that the fires resulting from the accident could ignite the cars, causing a dangerous explosion.
Norfolk Southern officials carried out a controlled burn of the chemicals on February 6, releasing the gas into a trench and setting it on fire, releasing a huge plume of black smoke into the air above East Palestine.
Mahoning County Hazmat Chief Steve Szekely described the fiery explosion as the gases were released.
“The only way I can describe it is as if the gates of hell were wide open. I mean, it was hot and the flames were going up into the air at least 30 meters,” he was quoted as saying by local broadcaster WKBN.
Flames swell after massive fire after train derails in Ohio
Five of the cars were carrying vinyl chloride and were ventilated. The Environmental Protection Agency said it did not detect chemical contaminants at worrying levels in the hours after venting, but warned residents that they may notice odors resulting from controlled burning.
“Residents in the area and tens of miles away can smell odors coming from the site. This is because controlled burn byproducts have a low odor threshold,” the EPA said in a statement. “This means that people can smell these contaminants at levels that are much lower than those considered to be dangerous.”
The gas has been linked to an “increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer” called hepatic angiosarcoma, according to the National Cancer Institute. A 2018 journal article studying cancer called it “exceptionally deadly” and said those who are diagnosed have a life expectancy of just 10 months.
The gas is also linked to primary liver cancer, brain and lung cancer, leukemia and lymphoma, according to the National Cancer Institute.
On February 8, residents were told they could return to their homes after a mandatory evacuation. However, two days later, the EPA sent a letter to Norfolk Southern detailing the other hazardous materials being carried on the train.
These include butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and benzene residue.
Rail safety experts are arguing that the accident was not an act of God, but rather the inevitable result of rolled back safety measures and reduced workforces in an effort to boost rail companies’ profits.
Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior Federal Railroad Administration official, told the investigative news outlet the lever that the “severity” of the accident was likely compounded by the lack of electronically controlled air brakes.
Former President Barack Obama passed legislation making it mandatory for trains carrying hazardous and flammable materials to have ECP brakes, but the order was rescinded in 2017 by the administration of Donald Trump.
The NTSB confirmed that the trains that derailed in the accident were not equipped with ECP brakes, according to The lever.
“Would the ECP brakes reduce the severity of this accident? Yes,” Ditmeyer told the agency.
He said railway companies often “don’t want to spend money” on updated safety features. In 2017, Norfolk Southern lobbied against the curb requirement, according to the lever.
The Independent has contacted Norfolk Southern for comment.
Mr. Trump is not the only president with a hand in the current state of the US rail system; Joe Biden ended a rail workers’ strike that would have pushed for higher safety standards and an end to a criticized rail management practice that some argue may have contributed to the crash.
The Railway Workers’ Union argued in The New Republic that a management practice adopted by rail companies called Precision Scheduled Railroading, or PSR, may have played a role in the accident and may contribute to future accidents.
PSR manages the freight schedule based on individual cars rather than the entire train. The practice has allowed railway companies to operate with fewer workers and, the RWU argues, with fewer safety precautions, according to the vehicle.
As the PSR schedule does not consider the entire train, it sometimes results in heavier trains being placed at the rear of the train, which can cause them to slam into lighter carriages when the brakes are suddenly applied, causing a switchblade . Usually heavier train cars are placed at the front of the train to prevent this movement.
A Norfolk Southern executive celebrated the company’s record weights and lengths of trains on a 2022 earnings conference call.
In December, railroad workers threatened to strike, calling for better benefits, safer working conditions and operating procedures, including ending the PSR schedule and ensuring that trains would have at least two workers on board at any given time.
Biden ended that labor action by signing a bill that stops the strike ahead of the busy holiday season.
“The bill I am about to sign ends a difficult rail dispute and helps our nation avoid what would undoubtedly have been an economic catastrophe at a very bad time in the calendar,” he said at the time, according to CNBC.
Cleaning and consequences
Officials from Norfolk Southern, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio Department of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Transportation Safety Board responded to the accident and have remained at the scene since the train derailed.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine told reporters about 10 days after the accident that he had secured Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw’s commitment that the company would remain in East Palestine until all consequences of the accident were corrected.
Meanwhile, residents reported symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat and headaches, which ODH staffer Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, said they are common side effects of exposure to volatile organic compounds. He said that single, small exposures to VOCs were unlikely to cause long-term health problems, as could be the case with longer, more concentrated exposure.
He noted that tobacco smoke and gasoline smoke are also considered VOCs.
The EPA and ODNR have been monitoring air and water contaminants since the accident and have reported that the levels detected are not significant enough to cause lasting effects to residents.
However, the ODNR also noted that 3,500 fish were found dead in Columbiana County, where East Palestine is located, in the days after the derailment. Officials told reporters that none of the species were endangered and that there had been no more deaths since the initial discovery.
Residents have also been advised by state officials to drink bottled water until the EPA can conduct further testing to ensure that well water in the area is safe for consumption.
When asked what he would do if he lived in eastern Palestine, DeWine said he would “drink bottled water” and return to his home.
ODNR officials also noted that there have been no confirmed reports of animal deaths – other than the 3,500 fish – resulting from the train derailment.
Mr. DeWine told reporters that the state would commit to staying in eastern Palestine until the accident was completely “cleaned up”.
Meanwhile, residents have been told it is safe to return to their homes and report any concerns they have to a state hotline.
At least three class actions have already been filed against Norfolk Southern since the accident, according to ClassAction.org.