Screenshot from an aerial video of the crash site.
28 Feb 2024

HazMat transport: Many questions remain about toxicity and the emergency crew situation remains the same in East Palestine


Few hazmat incidents have shaken the United States as much as the East Palestine derailment when almost a million pounds of vinyl chloride was vented and burnt. Despite reassurances from authorities; one year later, many residents still feel their homes were contaminated. 

One year after East Palestine (OH) Train Derailment, not much has changed for local Emergency Responders, reports Fire Engineering.com. Proposed legislative changes have not yet made their way into law.  Crews are left to rely on private train companies to furnish necessary information.

In the days after the derailment, experts on the scene had to decide if the vinyl chloride on the train was at risk of undergoing an explosive chemical reaction. Norfolk Southern’s director of hazardous materials, Robert Wood, testified in a June hearing before the National Transportation Safety Board that a controlled burn was a necessary last resort, reports the Guardian. 

In the same hearing, a representative from OxyVinyls, the company which owned the vinyl chloride, testified that his team had told Norfolk Southern on three separate occasions that they didn’t believe an explosion was going to happen. This information was never shared with authorities on the scene.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the communication breakdown that followed the derailment.

At the same time, what remains is the question: Will this type of disaster happen again? As the US railway industry cut its workforce and makes trains longer – something the sector said had boosted efficiency - data shows this has boosted profits - the likelyhood is there.  

On the night that a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, it took nearly an hour for first responders there to find out what chemicals were onboard, according to ABC News. 

The railroad company gave the volunteer fire chief 13 minutes to decide if to vent and burn in the incident or to let the gas remain in the overheated tanks. 

It's concerning to hear that one year after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, there hasn't been significant progress in implementing legislative changes to better equip local emergency responders. Reliance on private train companies for crucial information during emergencies puts responders and communities at risk, as they may not have access to vital details needed to effectively manage situations.

Without proper legislation in place to mandate transparency and cooperation from train companies, local emergency crews are left vulnerable and dependent on the goodwill of these private entities. This situation underscores the importance of swift action from policymakers to address gaps in emergency response protocols and ensure the safety of both responders and residents.

Moving forward, it would appear imperative for legislators to prioritize passing laws that enhance communication and collaboration between train companies and emergency responders. Additionally, investing in training and resources for local crews to handle railway emergencies independently could mitigate reliance on external sources for critical information.

Overall, this situation highlights the need for proactive measures to strengthen emergency response capabilities and safeguard communities from the potential hazards associated with train derailments and other incidents.

Approximately 135 miles of active rail lines in Lancaster County carry rail cars potentially filled with hazardous materials like vinyl chloride, similar to the chemical involved in a train derailment near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border in February 2023. 

Despite calls for greater transparency from train companies after the incident, proposed legislative changes have not become law, leaving local emergency responders reliant on private companies for critical information during emergencies. 

“It’s frustrating, but unfortunately you get used to it,” said Duane Hagelgans, emergency management coordinator for Millersville Borough and Manor Township and a professor of emergency management  at Millersville University.

A lack of advance notice of trains carrying hazardous materials in Lancaster County was highlighted in an investigation. First responders report no changes in response procedures or available information, with proposed legislation stalled in Congress and the state Legislature. 

Emergency responders may access hazardous material manifests through the AskRail app, although its adoption varies. 

Randall Gockley, president of the Lancaster County Firemen’s Association, notes a lack of additional transparency from train companies regarding hazardous materials. In the state Legislature, House Bill 1028 proposes establishing a database of hazardous materials on state railways, passed the House but awaits action from the Senate Consumer Protection and License Committee. Meanwhile, in Congress, the Railway Safety Act aims to mandate notifications to local emergency response groups about hazardous materials, among other provisions. 

Despite some progress, such as the act advancing out of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, further action is needed. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation has also proposed a rule for real-time electronic information on hazardous shipments. Duane Hagelgans highlights the unfortunate reality that significant changes often occur only after disasters prompt attention from policymakers.