On Feb. 3, a train owned by Norfolk Southern carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, after a wheel bearing overheated to 253 degrees above the air temperature. The train engineer braked after being alerted of the temperature, but the 23rd train car derailed before the train could fully stop, releasing vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing chemical, as a result. The train was carrying 115,580 gallons of the chemical, and after it was released, responders did a control burn to evaporate the leaked liquid and avoid an explosion.
Though a large, fiery black cloud formed after the burn, local officials claimed that the flames were manageable. Since the chemical is so volatile, a controlled burn is the safest method of disposal.
“As long as people don’t swim in there and stay away from it, the most noticeable effects will be gone fairly quickly,” upper school chemistry teacher Walter Warner said. “The problem is — and this is the part where they’re not being entirely honest — is that the liquid aspect of it can easily get into the groundwater and into the soil, and that is a longer-term problem. It’s not what we call an acute problem.”
Since the derailment, residents of East Palestine have expressed concern about the release of not only vinyl chloride but four other toxic chemicals associated with nausea, numbness and drowsiness, according to NBC News. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported that around 3,500 dead fish turned up in nearby waterways, and though director Mary Mertz claims that there is no evidence of death or illness in non-aquatic species, many pet owners have said that their pets have unexpectedly dropped dead or fallen ill after the chemicals’ release. Andrea Belden said that her cat was healthy at their vet appointment a few weeks before the crash, but the vinyl chloride triggered congestive heart failure, causing Belden to put down her cat.
“Wildlife officers have been there every day on the scene, working with contractors who are in the water doing the net sampling, making the estimates,” Mertz said in an interview with CBS. “We will continue to monitor and watch what’s going on and eventually hold those responsible, accountable for the loss of wildlife in the area.”
Residents evacuated right after the derailment believing that the chemicals may cause adverse health effects, but they were allowed to return home on Feb. 8 after officials deemed it safe. Since then, according to NBC News, some workers and residents in East Palestine have been diagnosed with bronchitis; doctors presume their diagnoses are linked to the leaked chemicals.
“The more long-term concern is that if there’s contaminated water, then there’s contaminated soil, so if people are eating vegetables grown in contaminated soil, they’re going to get some of the byproducts of the breakdown of the vinyl chloride,” Warner said. “Those will go into their bodies and get stuck in their liver and kidneys. When you have large chemical accidents, it’s not the original problem that kills people, but it’s the long-term effects of being exposed to high enough levels of contaminants that end up accumulating in the body because once [the chemicals] get into your system, your liver can’t clear it out.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — who recently came under fire for waiting 10 days to address the issue and three weeks to visit the site — warned the company to support the community and “do whatever it takes to stop putting communities such as East Palestine at risk.” Norfolk Southern Railway has offered $8 million to East Palestine for families and cleanup.
In late February, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced that 500,000 gallons of toxic wastewater from the site were being delivered to Deer Park, Texas, near Houston to be injected into the ground at Texas Molecular, a company that disposes of hazardous waste. While the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has made it clear that Texas Molecular is capable of disposing of the wastewater without affecting the public, some residents have voiced their concerns over the transportation of the chemicals.
“There has to be a closer deep well injection,” Deer Park local Tammy Baxter said in an interview with KTRK-TV (Houston, Texas). “It’s foolish to put it on the roadway. We have accidents on a regular basis … It is silly to move it that far.”
Just 10 days after the Ohio derailment, a Union Pacific train derailed in Splendora, Texas, after colliding with an 18-wheeler. According to Lieutenant Troy Teller, the spokesperson of Splendora Police, 100 gallons of diesel and 15 quarts of oil leaked, so no hazardous chemicals were released.
“I think the [railroad industry] is a necessary industry in America that our economy relies on a lot,” junior Wheeler Wood said. “But a lot of the railroad companies have considered profits over safety and the infrastructure of their own rail lines, and it’s led to derailments and otherwise issues with the rail industry, mainly just like the Norfolk Southern collapse. They’ve had multiple derailments in the past month.”
Texas train derailments are not uncommon; in 2004, a train operated by Union Pacific derailed near San Antonio after accidentally hitting a Burlington Northern-Santa Fe train. The collision released 60 tons of chlorine gas, which caused three deaths, according to railroad accident lawyers Gordon, Elias and Seely L.L.P. Everyone within a two-mile radius was evacuated, 50 people were hospitalized, and property damages and environmental clean-up cost over $7 million. Six years later, Union Pacific had to pay over $500,000 to the Environmental Protection Agency for their response to the chemical release.
“Derailments are preventable,” Wood said. “It’s usually because the track conditions aren’t that great. I think it’s about time to take a look at the rail industry and make sure that they maintain their rail standard.”
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that an average of 1,704 trains derail in the U.S. every year, causing around 174 injuries and four deaths. According to the American Chemistry Council, almost 1 billion tons of hazardous materials are transported by rails each year. Additionally, the rate of hazardous material accidents has decreased by 55 percent since 2012, and most accidents are caused by a failure with train equipment, like the East Palestine derailment, or human error. “What I hope happens in all of the places around the country where there’s a fair amount of freight train traffic is that this acts as a wake-up call,” Warner said. “I hope that the Dallas Municipal Government is reevaluating what its response to this would be, and I’m guessing that all of the places that have this as a potential problem are not as ready as they need to be.”