On February 3rd, 2023, 50 cars of a 150-car train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed in the Ohio town of East Palestine causing a fire and evacuation of residents. Between 10 and 20 of these cars carried hazardous chemicals including vinyl chloride, a well-studied human carcinogen. In subsequent days, the risk of derailed train cars exploding led state officials to call for an extension of the evacuation order and a controlled release of the hazardous chemicals. The contents of five railcars were drained and diverted into trenches where the toxic chemicals were burned, producing a massive plume of smoke and prompting further public health concerns for residents. The evacuation order has since been lifted, and residents of East Palestine are anxiously returning to their homes.
Freshwater Future released the following statement on the events: “As train cars full of toxic chemicals were intentionally burned due to the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, health risks are still unclear for residents of East Palestine as well as downstream communities. The U.S. EPA is sending conflicting messages about the pollution and health risks from the Ohio train derailment. In one statement, EPA says it has not detected “any levels of concern” of hazardous substances. Yet in other statements, they are confirming that substances released during the incident have been detected in six streams as well as storm drains, and they are investigating the soil. Jill Ryan, Executive Director of Freshwater Future stated, “This accident points to the urgency for changing how we regulate the transport of toxic materials and petroleum products on, over and around our precious water resources. Our valuable waters, such as the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, must be better protected from the threats to the safety of our drinking water from transporting hazardous chemicals.”
In Governor DeWine’s press conference on February 14th, he announced this train was not considered a high hazardous material train and “therefore the railroad was not required to notify anyone here in Ohio about what was in the railcar”. He added that “this is absurd” and called on Congress to close this gap in regulation and enforcement.
While current air quality testing shows concentrations of contaminants below hazardous levels, testing for water quality is more uncertain. East Palestine’s municipal wells have so far not shown signs of contamination concentrations of concern. However, Department of Health officials recommended that all residents use bottled water as more detailed testing results are coming soon. Moreover, residents with private wells were cautioned not to use their drinking water until it is tested. Bottled water for such households is being provided. Meanwhile, contaminants continue to runoff into the nearby Sulphur and Leslie Creeks which flow into the Little Beaver Creek, a wild and scenic river that connects to the Ohio River.
The original release of contamination has reached the Ohio River, and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) is tracking the plume as it moves at a speed of a mile per hour down the river. ORSANCO is coordinating with municipalities along the river to either close drinking water intakes or begin necessary treatments. Additionally, Ohio EPA is planning to start testing PFAS contamination levels soon following the use of fire-suppressing foams at the disaster site.
Under business as usual regulatory enforcement, this train’s contents were not considered highly hazardous material, yet resulted in significant harm to East Palestine residents and other communities. Ron Kaminkow, secretary for the Railroad Workers United, told the Guardian that “ineffective oversight and a largely self-monitoring industry that has cut the nation’s rail workforce to the bone in recent years as it puts record profits over safety is responsible for the wreck.”
Future disasters cannot be prevented by current environmental regulations that allow self-monitoring and reporting by rail transport companies. This is evidenced by the most recent incident on Thursday where another of Norfolk Southern’s trains derailed in Van Buren, Michigan. Although there is no evidence yet of hazardous materials released into the air or nearby waterways, FEMA, EGLE and local authorities are coordinating to protect public safety. Freshwater Future will continue to monitor these situations as they develop and will provide and uplift action items for our network.
East Palestine, OH Train Derailment Resources, Links & Info
In the News
EPA – EPA Orders Norfolk Southern to Conduct All Cleanup Actions Associated with the East Palestine Train Derailment
Earthjustice – How a Train Derailment Led to a Major Chemical Disaster in Ohio
NY Times – What We Know About the Train Derailment in Ohio – https://www.nytimes.com/article/ohio-train-derailment.html
NPR – Health concerns grow in East Palestine, Ohio, after train derailment- https://www.npr.org/2023/02/14/1156567743/health-east-palestine-ohio-train-derailment-chemicals
WKBN 27 First News – Help to East Palestine Families – https://www.wkbn.com/news/local-news/east-palestine-train-derailment/help-available-for-east-palestine-evacuees/?ipid=promo-link-block1
Train Derailment Response – OH and PA Must Take Action!
Way Station – offering food, personal care products, diapers and clothing Monday through Friday. Items can be collected from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 769 Springfield Rd., Columbiana and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 125 W. 5th St., East Liverpool
Angels for Animals – taking calls for animal assistance requests on a call-by-call basis at 330-502-5352
Red Cross – https://www.wkbn.com/news/local-news/east-palestine-train-derailment/red-cross-assists-east-palestine-residents/