One of the largest railroads in North America, Norfolk Southern, has sparked controversy following a major accident within the 140,000 miles of track that exist in their networks. Problems began when a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3 around 9 p.m. 50 of the 100 cars ran off the track; the cause appears to have been the failure of an overheating wheel bearing moments prior.
The village of East Palestine is home to about 4,700 residents, all of which felt the repercussions of harmful effects of this disaster.
At the time of the incident, the train operated by Norfolk Southern was carrying a myriad of chemicals and combustible materials. The most concerning to investigators was the presence of vinyl chloride, an extremely toxic flammable gas. Upon the derailment, a sprawling fire erupted, filling the sky with a thick cloud of dark smoke.
Authorities decided to intentionally burn the chemical cargo in some of the remaining cars rather than risk an explosion. As toxic fumes were floating throughout the air, citizens weren’t safe in their homes.
“We are ordering you to leave,” Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio said, according to the New York Times. “This is a matter of life and death.”
The experience of being forced to evacuate their homes in a timely manner was unnerving for residents. The situation was dire to avoid inhaling fumes of what authorities have been identified as phosgene and hydrogen chloride. Citizens were crammed into secure locations that acted as emergency shelters. Inhaling high concentrations of these chemicals can lead to serious health defects, specifically life-threatening respiratory issues.
An update has been flagged on Norfolk Southern’s website, posted on Feb. 13 stating,“Norfolk Southern is continuing to work with local, state and federal leaders and the community affected by the derailment in East Palestine, OH on February 3. Additionally, Norfolk Southern would like to update our customers on the status of railroad operations.” The statement goes on to say that both mainlines have been restored to service, as of Feb. 7.
The Health and Human Services Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plan to send a team of medical personnel and toxicologists to Ohio, in response to a request from Ohio’s congregational delegation. The team will conduct public health testing and assessments on citizens in affected areas. Many selfless individuals have since traveled to the site to help assist in the communities. Officials have been working to test the air quality and work on a plan for the clean-up process.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that “five railcar tankers of vinyl chloride were intentionally breached; the vinyl chloride was diverted to an excavated trench and then burned off.” They asked for written responses to their released statement and are making progress in assisting the affected area.
“We’re taking this local emergency very seriously and we’ll continue to do everything in our power to protect the community,” Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the EPA, stated. “We stand ready to contribute in any way we can.”
States using water from the Ohio River have begun taking precautions. According to a press release from American Water, West Virginia, “As of noon on February 12, source water monitoring and water quality testing have not detected any change to raw water at the company’s Ohio River intake, though as a precautionary measure the company has enhanced its treatment processes.” The water will continue to be monitored in weeks following the derailment. The press release went on to remark, “The company is taking proactive and precautionary steps by implementing our business continuity plans, including installation of a secondary intake on the Guyandotte River, should the need arise to switch to an alternate source water.”
A vast amount of the harmful material was spilled into local waterways near the area of the incident. As of now, the derailment’s effect on wildlife has been more apparent than its effect on humans. 3,500 fish have been found deceased as a result of the toxic chemicals, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Additionally, residents have reported cases of dead or sickened animals, including pets and wildstock.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, around 1,000 derailments occur each year. Nearly two weeks after the disaster, the smell of the fire still lingers which residents have described similarly to the scent of nail polish remover. A church in New Waterford, about five miles from East Palestine, is being used as an assistance center during these trying times. It is said that Norfolk Southern has been giving out $1,000 payments as a way to “cover the costs related to the evacuation.” The company is prepared to distribute more than $1.2 million in financial assistance.
Additionally, Norfolk Southern has stated they will provide more than 100 air purifiers for the residents to use in their homes. Air tests are being conducted in homes, as well as cleaning and monitoring of the air in school buildings.
“Crews are cleaning the site thoroughly, responsibly and safely,” Norfolk Southern president and CEO Alan Shaw remarked. “Our Family Assistance Center is helping community members meet immediate needs.”
In a public letter addressed to Shaw, Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania described his discontent with how Norfolk Southern has handled the situation following the incident. In his letter, he makes claims that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) were not immediately contacted, and found out about the incident independently. He remarks three main issues with the management process of Norfolk Southern: failure to implement United Command, providing inaccurate information to the public and the unwillingness to explore alternative options to their proposed burn and vent technique.
As the uproar of this phenomenon continues to occur, residents are grateful to return to their homes and rebuild the community after this tragedy.