Energy & Environment

Five lingering questions over Ohio train derailment, toxic spill

Residents of the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, are back in their homes this week following their evacuations over looming explosion fears after a train carrying 20 cars of hazardous materials derailed.

The contents of the rail cars have since been burned to prevent an explosion, while officials conducted a “controlled release” of toxic chemicals. Noxious odors have also largely dispersed from town, though still remain near some streams, according to local reports.

Questions have swirled in recent days around the root causes of the accident and whether residents should be concerned about a continued threat to land and water. The accident has also raised scrutiny over safety regulations.

Here are five lingering questions about the spill:

What was on the train — and what got out?

This photo taken with a drone shows the continuing cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Immediate coverage of the Norfolk Southern train derailment focused on an urgent threat — five leaking cars of vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing, explosive chemical ingredient used to make hard plastic such as PVC pipe.

Faced with the risk of an explosion, emergency responders diverted the leaking vinyl chloride into a trench and burned it off — converting it into phosgene gas, used as a lethal chemical weapon in World War I.

Officials urged residents to quickly evacuate, with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) saying at a media briefing, “You need to leave. You just need to leave. This is a matter of life and death.”

Two days later, with the gas dispersed, state and local health officials declared that “it is now safe for community members to return to their residences.”

But those five train cars — each potentially holding thousands of gallons of vinyl chloride — were not the only hazardous material, according to documents the train company provided to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

During the wreck, EPA investigators said they found other hazardous material-containing cars “derailed, breached and/or on fire.”

These substances included industrial solvents such as ethylene glycol monobutyl ether — which can be absorbed through the skin and is toxic to the liver and kidneys — and ethylhexyl acrylate, another known carcinogen that is toxic to the lungs and nervous system. 

According to the EPA, about 20 rail cars in the wreck were listed as carrying hazardous materials, and after the spill chemicals were seen running into storm drains. Other chemicals were buried on site.

These chemicals did not stay in place — all of those listed are still being released “to the air, surface soils, and surface waters,” the EPA reported.

What’s in the water?

A HEPACO worker places booms in a stream in East Palestine, Ohio, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023 as the cleanup continues after the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train Friday. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Sulphur Run, the chemical-smelling creek that runs through East Palestine, connects through a number of waterways down to the Ohio River, snaking through a densely populated countryside dotted with towns, cities and fields.

Last week, officials in the Ohio River community of Weirton, W.Va., detected butyl acrylate — another chemical listed among the burning cars — though they aren’t sure if it came from the spill upriver, The Weirton Daily Times reported.

Further downstream in Cincinnati, officials were monitoring water intakes to see if the chemicals make it to them. If detected, officials told local station WLWT they could shut off intake valves to allow the chemical plume to drift by.

Other residents don’t have the benefit of water treatment facilities to insulate them from spills. Fish kills proliferated along Ohio River tributaries in the days after the East Palestine spill, including Little Beaver Creek, a National Scenic River, WKBN reported.

Those streams are an important site for the reintroduction of the hellbender salamander, an endangered species in Ohio — and a creature that, like other amphibians, is at particular risk from water pollution.

“We really don’t know any of the effects on the hellbender population where we’ve done the reintroduction of those in the streams. It’s gonna take time to know what the effects are,” Matthew Smith, an official with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, told WKBN.

In a statement to The Hill, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) called on the state and federal environmental protection agencies to ensure local families receive complete testing and cleanup and continued health monitoring — and to ensure Norfolk Southern pays for cleanup.

Norfolk Southern said on Monday it has performed 340 in-home air tests and thousands of outdoor tests as well as water testing in municipal drinking water and public and private wells — results it will release next week. 

It also announced plans to create a new monitoring system and task force to keep tabs on contamination of local water supplies. 

Did lax regulations help cause the crash?

Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine provides an update on the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Patrick Orsagos)

Railroad safety experts and union members have reiterated calls for more stringent federal oversight of the rail industry following the derailment.

One area of constant tension has been brakes. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) received reports that crews of the Norfolk Southern train pulled the emergency brake, and a mechanical issue with one of the railcar axles was discovered, CNN reported.

The possibility of a brake failure points to a behind-the-scenes battle in American railroad regulation — and a place where critics say that both parties have resisted reforms that would make Americans safer.

Most trains run on a system where wheels stop one at a time using a compression system, left-leaning news outlet The Lever reported. By contrast, electronically controlled pneumatic brake technology halts all the cars simultaneously — dramatically reducing stopping time.

While Norfolk Southern initially touted these advances, it was also part of a coalition of rail companies that successfully fought the regulations, winning a reprieve from the Obama administration and a repeal under the Trump administration, according to The Lever.

The outlet reported that the Norfolk Southern train wasn’t regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train” even though its crash triggered a fireball.

“Railroads should not use their lobbyists to block or weaken commonsense safety measures that protect workers and communities,” Brown told The Lever. 

In his statement to The Hill, the Ohio senator called on the NTSB, which is investigating the derailment, to tell Congress and the Department of Transportation what can be done “to avert future derailments involving hazardous materials.” 

One such measure is before the agency now. Members of multiple railroad unions are fighting a potential rule that would allow trains using the new electronic brakes to travel 2,500 miles — up from 1,500 — without stopping to have their brakes tested. 

While these trains would have electronic logs, such a ledger “cannot justify reducing the frequency of inspections and repairs to train brakes in the field,” Rich Johnson of the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen said in a statement.

“Such changes will almost certainly reduce the overall safety of trains operating across the country,” Johnson added.

Will it lead to railroad reforms?

HEPACO workers, an environmental and emergency services company, observe a stream in East Palestine, Ohio. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

In the aftermath of the crash, railroad union leaders were quick to connect it to an issue they’ve warned about for years: that railroad layoffs and reliance on clockwork, inflexible scheduling were running them ragged and leading to disaster.

These policies, rolled out under a broader model in 2015, “pose real threats to workers and public safety,” Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO union, wrote the head of the Federal Railroad Administration last week.

“In fact, derailments per train mile and incidents at rail yards have significantly increased on several major freight railroads since they adopted the Precision Scheduled Railroading,” Regan added.

The question of scheduling is a particularly divisive one. Last year, Congress voted to force union workers to accept a deal with railroad companies that gave them virtually no ability to take unscheduled sick time — and then narrowly voted down a plan that would have forced the companies to give sick time anyway.

Unions and progressive politicians see the recent derailment and leak as added proof that this was a bad decision that benefited railroad carrier balance sheets over public safety.

Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) linked the Ohio crash to railroads’ record 2022 profits and what he characterized as chronic underinvestment in both infrastructure and staffing.

Sanders joined with Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) to demand rail companies give workers at least seven days of paid sick time.

He had reason to be optimistic: CSX Transportation — one of the country’s largest railroad companies — reached a deal last week with two railroad unions to provide that number of sick days.

In a speech, Braun framed this as a commonsense measure. “In this day and age you don’t know when you’re going to get sick. It’s going to be an issue on keeping employees long term. Where I come from, most of this stuff should be natural,” he said. 

Sanders was more pugnacious. He suggested the rest of the major rail carriers reach voluntary deals of their own. “If not, I look forward to seeing them right here,” he said, gesturing at the Senate chambers. 

Will it happen again?

The cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

About 4.5 million tons of toxic chemicals are transported through U.S. communities every year by rail, and 12,000 trains carrying hazardous materials cross through towns and cities each day, The Guardian reported.

“The Palestine wreck is the tip of the iceberg and a red flag,” Ron Kaminkow, a former Norfolk Southern freight engineer and secretary for the Railroad Workers United, told The Guardian. “If something is not done, then it’s going to get worse, and the next derailment could be cataclysmic.”

Railway safety advocates also point to reporting around near-disaster events.

The NTSB operates a confidential “close call” reporting system — which allows employees to report unsafe events and near-misses so they can be fixed. 

“Not one of the seven major U.S. freight railroads voluntarily use this program,” Regan, the AFL-CIO official, wrote in his letter to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Regan called on Congress to force rail carriers to participate in the reporting program, which he said would “create a safer freight rail system and identify potential safety issues before they lead to dangerous catastrophes.”

Without meaningful reform, he wrote, “we fear that these safety incidents will unfortunately keep happening.”

Tags East Palestine East Palestine Mike DeWine Ohio Toxic exposure

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