By Samantha Aguirre and Jessica Castagna. Photo by Keating Zelenke.

After a Norfolk Southern train transporting hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3, large plumes of gray smoke permeated the sky as workers scrambled to burn away the toxins. The train derailment exposed the small town of about 4,800 people to multiple toxic chemicals that have been known to increase risks of cancer and other illnesses. Eleven of the 38 derailed cars contained hazardous materials.

One of the most impactful chemicals spilled in the derailment is vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride is produced industrially and is most commonly used to make PVC — a compound used in several plastic products. It also has risks associated with increased rates of various cancers.

Though there were no human casualties from the initial incident, scientists have indicated there are signs of broader environmental damage and possible impacts on wildlife. Within a 5-mile radius of the crash site, there have since been reports of over 43,000 aquatic animal deaths in the area. This magnitude of death further indicates the detrimental health impacts these chemicals may have on organisms. These deaths reportedly took place immediately after the crash and the toxins have since been contained. 

In a livestream on Feb. 23, Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Director Mary Mertz read a prepared statement regarding the wildlife concerns following the reported aquatic deaths. “Because the chemicals were contained, ODNR has not seen any additional signs of aquatic life suffering,” Mertz said. 

Since the containment of these chemicals that infiltrated this area of water, officials claim tests have shown no dangerous levels of chemicals and no threat to the water or air quality. However, workers reported concerns about the adequacy of the personal protective gear provided to them for the cleanup, according to a letter sent to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg from J.B. Long of the American Rail System Federation. Workers also feared the potential health effects that the exposure to vinyl chloride could have on their wellness. 

“Many other employees reported that they continue to experience migraines and nausea, days after the derailment, and they all suspect that they were willingly exposed to these chemicals at the direction of [Norfolk Southern],” Long wrote. 

People living in or near East Palestine also reported feeling sick with headaches and rashes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists both of these ailments as symptoms of vinyl chloride exposure.

Each year, roughly 1,000 train derailments occur across more than 140,000 miles of track in the U.S. — a statistic that has remained relatively constant over the past several decades. These derailments typically do not cause many injuries or fatalities, and their consequences are roughly equal to those of fender benders on U.S. roads.

Train derailments involving leaks of hazardous materials, or hazmat for short, are uncommon. Compared with other forms of transportation, trains have accounted for the lowest number of recorded spills of hazardous materials, ranking at about 5,000 spills in the last decade, according to USA Today. Trains that transport these substances must meet particular safety requirements depending on the substances that they carry. When a train that is carrying hazardous cargo derails, the seriousness of the incident skyrockets.

Since the derailment, there has been backlash from environmental agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who took the reins in the cleanup of the accident and delegated it to Norfolk Southern. In a press conference following the accident, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said, “Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess that they created and the trauma that they inflicted. In no way, shape or form will Norfolk Southern get off the hook for the mess that they created.”

Part of this cleanup included the burning of vinyl chloride to prevent possible uncontrolled explosions of the compounds. Nearby residents were evacuated to avoid the inhalation of the potentially deadly chemicals being released into the atmosphere.

In response to the train derailment in East Palestine, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called on Congress to allow the agency to enforce necessary safety regulations that the railroad industry is lacking. Buttigieg contended that the industry has resisted proposed government regulations that would improve braking systems on train cars and increase safety when transporting hazardous materials. Additionally, he asserted that lobbyists who benefit from railroad profits have an incentive to prevent railroad companies from implementing costly upgrades, even when these technologies could prevent incidents such as the disaster in East Palestine. 

“Profit and expediency must never outweigh the safety of the American people,” Buttigieg said. “We at USDOT are doing everything in our power to improve rail safety, and we insist that the rail industry do the same — while inviting Congress to work with us to raise the bar.”

As Buttigieg contended, the railroad industry has a long history of deregulation that has prevented new safety measures and technologies from being implemented.

In 1980, the Staggers Rail Act freed the freight railroad industry from government regulation, allowing it to bounce back from near collapse. As a result, a privatized and profitable railroad industry, one that invests billions of dollars each year, emerged. Since the Staggers Rail Act, the railroad industry has fought back viciously against proposed regulations, fearful that government intervention will mean slow profits and slow progress, culminating in a collapse that mimics that of the late 20th century.

In 2014, the Obama administration attempted to increase safety regulations within the railroad industry, particularly for trains carrying flammable and hazmat materials, but these reforms fell short of their goal. When these regulations were eventually passed, they were hyperfocused on petroleum transportation. Other threatening materials — such as vinyl chloride, one of the main chemicals involved in the East Palestine disaster — were excluded

Before the derailment of the Norfolk Southern train that devastated the communities of East Palestine, Ohio, the company helped to shut down a proposed safety rule that would have improved the railroad industry’s braking systems. In 2017, Norfolk Southern praised the new technology, known as Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes, which are much more efficient than the current air brakes that are commonplace within the railroad industry.

Norfolk Southern boasted that ECP braking systems could “reduce train stopping distances by as much as 60 percent” when compared with the currently used braking systems. However, when it came time to implement this new technology, the company ultimately struck down the notion and pushed for doing away with the proposed regulation, citing that the new technology was simply too expensive.

“The railroads will test new features. But once they are told they have to do it… they don’t want to spend the money,” Steven Ditmeyer said in an interview with The Lever. Ditmeyer is a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration.

A week before a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, the railroad company’s chief executive, Alan Shaw, told shareholders that their service was “at the best it’s been in more than two years.” According to a company presentation, Norfolk Southern has experienced annual upticks in railway accidents for the last four years. Over the last five years, the company has paid its shareholders more than double what it has invested in its railway upkeep and operations.  

Shaw released a statement claiming that Norfolk Southern will be present to support the members of the East Palestine community for as long as necessary. The company has reportedly set aside $1 million for a “community support fund” to help bolster some of the nearby businesses, alongside other funding to various segments of the community. On their website, they list the exact amounts they have donated and documentation of purchases made to support the community. 

Yet, all these donations do not reverse the damage done to the environment as a result of this derailment. This begs the question: what about the priceless soil, water supply, clean air and peace of mind of residents that were compromised in this preventable disaster?

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