Screenshot from an aerial video of the crash site.
05 Mar 2023

HazMat derailment in Ohio turns into large political conflict - public health concern over toxic chemical release


By thunderlips36, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128970663
By thunderlips36, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128970663

The public health concerns over a toxic release of chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, which occurred after a derailment of a train carrying various hazardous chemicals on February 3, has developed into a major political conflict in the United States. 



When a freight train derailed on February 3, pressure buildup in tanker cars containing vinyl chloride forced the local fire services to release the chemical in a controlled manner, and all residents were evacuated during the process. 

The town of East Palestine has had a difficult time dealing with both emotional and physical / economical disturbances caused be the evacuation order. 

Government agencies involved in the aftermath of the February 3 train derailment have been claiming all along that there is no health risk to the public in the East Palestine area efter residents were allowed to return home. However, residents have been complaining about lung problems, skin rashes and general anxiety of all the toxins released in the community.

The political turmoil developing in the US since this train derailment has included racial allegations, speculations about health problems not scientifically confirmed by doctors, as well as a general controversy around what risks communities are exposed to when trains carrying hazmat are passing through small towns. 

The debate has also largely focused on a perceived sense government and the governments´s alleged unwillingness to help residents deal with the aftermath of the evacuation. 


Plans to burn contaminated soil is "horrifying" to a former EPA agent

A March 4th article in The Guardian,  describes how contaminated soil from the site around the East Palestine train wreck in Ohio is being sent to a nearby incinerator with a history of clean air violations. This has been raising fears that the chemicals being removed from the ground will be redistributed across the region.

Kyla Bennett, a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official,  now with the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility non-profit, says the new plan to incinerate contaminated soil is “horrifying”.

“Why on earth would you take this already dramatically overburdened community and ship this stuff a few miles away only to have it deposited right back where it came from?” Bennett asked.

According to the article, incinerating the soil is especially risky because some of the contaminants that residents and independent chemical experts fear is in the waste, like dioxins and PFAS, haven’t been tested for by the EPA, and they do not incinerate easily, or cannot be incinerated.


Only one chemical had elevated levels - but still below level of health risk

According to CNN; there has been elevated levels of the chemical Acrolein after the local fire services intentionally released and burned off toxic chemicals in connection with a train derailment earlier this month. 

"A mobile lab monitoring for air pollution at the site of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, found one potential chemical of concern at higher levels than normal".

A team of scientists from Carnegie Mellon University and Texas A&M confirmed this at a briefing on Friday. Researchers said it’s not yet clear what impact the chemical acrolein could be having on residents’ health.

The lab also found that values of benzene, toluene, xylenes and vinyl chloride were below the minimal risk levels for intermediate exposures as set by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Acrolein was also below the minimal risk level, but it was the one chemical that was notably high, the researchers said.

When compared with levels in downtown Pittsburgh, levels in the East Palestine area ranged from five times lower to three times higher than on February 20.


Public fears around contamination causes political conflict

In recent days, both Donald Trump and the known environmental activist Erin Brockovich have visited the local residents who say they feel forgotten by the authorities.

"We have never seen a disaster like this before", said Brockovich.

Around 45,000 fish and aquatic animals have died due to the leak from the train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3, writes the BBC.

Residents have testified that they inhaled toxic smoke and several say they have gotten sick and developed rashes.

The authorities have replied that the water is now drinkable - but this has been met with skepticism from the locals.

Last week, the environmentalist Erin Brockovich visited on location in Ohio. Erin Brockovich is known for having led the legal process in the Hinkley poison scandal where chemicals in the drinking water caused cancer among residents in the area.


"Feels familiar"

Brockovich is deeply critical of the crisis management and says that the residents of the city no longer know who to trust. Brockovich says that she herself has no confidence in the responsible authorities and that the local residents are caught between various politicians and corporate interests.

"I have worked with this for 30 years. The lack of information that these people have been given, they have almost been left here not knowing what is going on, where to go or who to turn to. It all feels very familiar to me, it's similar to what happened in Hinkley, Brockovich told CNN.

 Earlier this week, Trump visited the resort and handed out bottles of "Trump water" and offered food from McDonald's.


Biden is criticized for Kiev trip

The sitting president, Joe Biden has allegedly not visited the affected area. Instead, he traveled to Ukraine and Poland ahead of the anniversary of Russia's invasion. The absence is heavily criticized. The Republican mayor of the area has, among other things, called Biden's actions "a slap in the face".

The White House has instead sent Transport Minister Pete Buttigieg and announced that the US government is working to hold the company responsible for the transport accountable for the derailment. 


Original article published February 15

Residents are concerned after three more hazardous chemicals have been discovered after the planned release of vinyl chloride. The fire department is now needing to replace all their contaminated equipment. 

According to CBS News, the East Palestine Fire Department needs all new equipment following the train derailment that took place nearly two weeks ago, and which CTIF.org wrote about previously. 

According to the CBS article on February 15, the department lost all of their breathing apparatuses and turnout  gear. Also, all the trucks have to go through a decontamination process, after dealing with the planned release of vinyl chloride to avoid an explosion in some of the derailed tanker cars. 

CBS also has a video with aerial footage summarizing what happened near East Palestine, Ohio on February 3rd. 


More toxic chemicals discovered - sparks debate about freight rail safety

Three more toxic chemicals have been discovered to have affected the area, according to an article on WKBN.com. 

“We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open,” said Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist, to the news site. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to Norfolk Southern stating that ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene were also in the rail cars that were either derailed, breached and or on fire.

Caggiano also said it is possible that some of these chemicals could still be present in homes and on objects until they are cleaned thoroughly - and recommends anyone in the area should get a health check-up. 

According to AP, the release of toxic chemicals has caused great concern among residents in the area, and has sparked a debate about the transport of hazardous materials by rail. 

Around 50 cars, with 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed in a fiery crash last Friday in East Palestine, according to  the National Transportation Safety Board. Vinyl chloride was slowly released into the air Monday from five of those cars before crews ignited it to remove the highly flammable and also  toxic chemicals in a controlled environment. This created a dark plume of smoke, and all residents were evacuated from the area. 

Below is a video from MSNBC where an environmental expert is being interviewed about railroad safety in North America, in terms of HazMat tanker transports. This is not necessary an unbiased or fully factual story, but more an example of the public debate which has blossomed since this HazMat incident: