Climate Corner: Demand accountability for derailment damage

Feb 18, 2023

Eric Engle

If you’ve been paying much attention to the headlines in the last couple weeks, you’ve probably heard about the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3. Following the derailment, citizens in the vicinity had to be evacuated as a burn off of the primary substance in the cars, vinyl chloride, was undertaken to avoid a possible explosion and the flying shrapnel and other dangers that would likely have resulted.

Vinyl chloride is a flammable, colorless gas used in making countless plastics products that can cause headaches, dizziness and drowsiness with short-term exposure, but has been linked to a rare liver cancer with long-term exposure. Vinyl chloride was not the only toxic substance in the wreckage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to Norfolk Southern following the derailment detailing other hazardous chemicals found. Included in the list were the following, according to reporting by Environmental Health News:

* Ethylhexyl acrylate, an eye, skin, and respiratory irritant that is toxic to aquatic life.

* Ethylene glycol monobutyl, a carcinogen that can be absorbed through the skin and cause liver and kidney damage.

* Butyl acrylate, an extremely flammable chemical that can burn skin and eyes and cause permanent lung damage.

* Isobutylene, a highly flammable compound that can irritate eyes, nose, and throat, and cause coma or death at high levels of exposure.

Testing has revealed the presence of these chemicals and others in the Ohio River, though there seems to be agreement among federal regulators and regulators in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia that water in most municipal systems that pull from or are influenced by the Ohio River is safe to consume and use. Regulators are encouraging users of private wells to have their wells tested. With approximately 3,500 dead fish being found in tributaries to the Ohio River around the East Palestine area, I am not advising anyone reading this to simply trust said regulators. Unfortunately, it is now incumbent upon us all to find all the reliable information we can and make the most informed decisions possible on water filtration and whether or not we should be consuming and using bottled water and for how long.

The air pollution plumes seem to be moving due Northeast, based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plotted on and after Feb. 8. One Twitter user noted earlier this week that they and their family live across Lake Erie in Ontario, Canada, and have had headaches and dealt with the smell of chlorine for a solid week. Those are the kinds of issues we can most likely expect right now, but what about the longer term?

Gerald Poje, an expert in environmental health and former member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, was quoted in the New York Times saying, “The volume is just stupendous. It is just horrific to think about how much was released and how much was purposefully burned. There could be hundreds of different breakdown products that still remain, for which we have often very poor toxicological profiles. We’re oftentimes in this unknown place.” To restore service of the rail line quickly, it appears toxic chemicals were buried at the site of the wreck. Soil contamination could lead to contamination of groundwater and soil used by local gardeners and farmers.

Representatives of Norfolk Southern refused to show up to a local town hall meeting in East Palestine recently, stating that they feared for their physical safety due to “outside influences,” while providing no evidence that they had any cause for such concerns. Railroad union members have been warning for months that risks of such derailments ran high as cost-cutting measures were taken by the railroad companies that threatened transportation safety. According to reporting by USA Today, “Efforts to reduce costs including lobbying against costly regulation, increasing train lengths, reduced inspection times and major cuts to the railroad workforce have made trains less safe,” said labor representatives and industry experts, “increasing the potential for accidents like the one in Ohio to become more common.”

The Obama administration managed to pass a safety rule for the transport of hazardous materials in 2015, but the rule was fought and weakened by lobbyists, including lobbyists from Norfolk Southern, and was repealed three years later by the Trump administration. The Department of Transportation under Secretary Pete Buttigieg has made no apparent attempt to restore the rule or to write and implement any new rule, in spite of the months of warnings mentioned above. The Biden administration and Congress recently imposed a contract the administration negotiated with the rail companies on the railroad unions, despite the majority of union members voting to reject it, leaving these workers with the impossible choice of accepting unacceptable work and sick leave conditions or unlawfully striking and shouldering the blame for economic calamity.

How many will now suffer and die, and for how long, because our government capitulated to corporate interests (almost 3/4 of Norfolk Southern stock is owned by private equity firms) instead of listening to labor and protecting public health and our lived environment? We the people must demand accountability!


Eric Engle is chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action.