On Feb. 3, in the small town of East-Palestine, Ohio, a devastating environmental disaster occurred after a train containing numerous hazardous materials derailed and ignited into flames. Out of the total 150 train cars attached to the train in question, 50 cars were affected by the derailment, with 20 of the cars containing the aforementioned hazardous materials. The environmental outcomes of this catastrophe are still unfolding, as officials try to mitigate the consequences.
Five toxic substances were discovered around the site of the derailment: vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, isobutyl, ethylene glycol and ethylhexyl acrylate. Of the many chemicals involved in the accident, the one receiving the most attention is the vinyl chloride.
Vinyl chloride is a colorless carcinogenic gas that is most commonly used to create PVC plastics. The substance can be very harmful if you are exposed to it in large quantities and can cause an array of negative health effects. Symptoms of exposure range from neurological effects like dizziness or changes in mood to liver damage, kidney irritation, blood clots and more.
Due to fears that the vinyl chloride in the confined storage areas within the train cars may combust, authorities on Feb. 6 made the decision to intentionally burn the chloride in a controlled manner.
The disaster contaminated much of East-Palestine’s air and water with these harmful substances and has affected much of the local environment with many fearing greater effects on the ecosystems of the region.
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has since been gathering samples and data to track the effects of the chemical spill and burn. Although the chemicals from the train had, to some extent, contaminated the water supply of East-Palestine, five days after the incident, the evacuation order on the town was lifted. Officials had tested the water and air quality of the town and deemed that it was safe to return.
“FEMA and the State of Ohio have been in constant contact regarding emergency operations in East-Palestine. [The] U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA have been working together since day one,” said Ohio Governor Mike Dewine in a joint statement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
An official statement from the WhiteHouse.Gov reflects a similar attitude regarding the situation: “As President Biden told Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro soon after the derailment, the Federal Government stands ready to provide any additional federal assistance the states may need. Today, in response to Governor DeWine’s and the Ohio congressional delegation’s request on February 16 for additional federal public health support, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced they are deploying a team of medical personnel and toxicologists to conduct public health testing and assessments.”
With the EPA and other federal agencies working together with the state officials, the government is expanding a multitude of resources to help East-Palestine recover.
Although the evacuation order was lifted and citizens were allowed to return to their homes, concerns about the overall contamination of the region still exist. People on social media have been expressing their fears as to whether or not the EPA’s claims of safety can be trusted.
Eric Feigl-Ding, a public health scientist and former faculty member of Harvard University, tweeted on Feb. 17, “The water is not okay in Ohio. You don’t need to be a genius to see it,” while including a video of some multicolored sheen appearing from a water source in Ohio.
Feigl-Ding is one of many people taking their thoughts on the disaster to social media. As of March 2, the hashtag “ohiotraindisaster” on Twitter has 8.03k tweets full of discussion as to exactly how severe the derailment and the chemical spill really is. Videos of strange environmental phenomenons like seemingly chemically affected rain and beaches with piles of dead fish flood Twitter and other social media.
Officials in Ohio reported an estimate of 43,700 animal deaths in the East-Palestine due to the chemical contamination of the waterways. Although alarming at first glance, officials ensure that these deaths were initial after-effects of the chemical spill, and that by now the chemicals have been contained.
On March 1, Alan Shaw, the CEO of railroad corporation behind the derailment, agreed to testify before Congress on March 9 to potentially work towards ways of preventing situations like the one in East-Palestine.
During his testimony, he apologized for the disaster saying: “I want to begin today by expressing how deeply sorry I am for the impact this derailment has had on the residents of East Palestine and the surrounding communities.”
Norfolk Southern, the railroad corporation responsible for the incident, has been trying to undergo internal changes to address the disaster, but alongside that, Norfolk Southern publicly supports legislation with the intent to make railways safer. A regulatory bill regarding railroad safety and increased scrutiny when it comes to maintenance standards has been proposed by a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, which if passed, would require all trains carrying hazardous material similar to the one in East-Palestine be subjected to much higher safety regulation and would greatly increase the penalties for violations.
The true long term effects of the disaster in East-Palestine, Ohio, are currently impossible to know. The EPA insists that since the evacuation call was nullified, East-Palestine and surrounding areas are safe to live in. And although doubt among the populace runs deep, the EPA is still as of now monitoring the air, water, soil and waste of East-Palestine and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future in order to ensure that the contaminant levels stay within what they consider safe.