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East Palestine, Ohio Train Derailment | The Threats of Toxic Chemicals and Deregulation

On Friday, February 3rd, a train transporting toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Three days later, officials evacuated all residents within one mile of the derailment, which totaled around 2,000 people (in a town of 5,000). They did this because they were afraid the leaking chemicals could cause a deadly explosion. To prevent an explosion, crews released the toxic chemicals from five derailed tanker cars by creating small holes in the train cars. These chemicals were lit on fire in a controlled release, creating massive plums of black smoke. Two days after this, on February 8th, residents were told they could return home. While this seems like the end of the story, it is much worse than it seems.

Firstly, the chemicals that were released from the train derailment are terrible. One of the chemicals released was vinyl chloride, a colorless and flammable gas that has been linked to various types of cancer. The other chemicals released were butyl acrylate, benzene, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether. Some of the symptoms of these chemicals are headaches, dizziness, skin, eye, and respiratory irritation, nausea, and vomiting. There is fear that these chemicals will linger in the air, water, and soil of East Palestine for years to come, wreaking havoc on the local environment and populace of East Palestine. In fact, the short-term effects of these chemicals are already becoming evident. Residents near the derailment have reported symptoms including nausea and a burning sensation in their eyes, which are normal symptoms after exposure to these chemicals. Additionally, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources announced that the spilled chemicals from the derailment killed around 3,500 fish in nearby streams. The EPA has been monitoring environmental conditions in East Palestine and surrounding towns, and now deems the air and water of the area safe, but these reassurances have not been enough to quell the worry. It is clear that the effects of this disaster will be felt in East Palestine for a long time. But how did this happen in the first place?

After investigating the derailment, the National Transportation Safety Board said that a malfunction in one of the train’s axles caused the derailment. Additionally, surveillance camera footage shows that there was a fire underneath the train prior to the derailment. Norfolk Southern, the rail company responsible for the derailment, is being heavily criticized for this disaster. Prior to the derailment, the company cut costs wherever it could. Since the freight rail industry does not have effective oversight and is largely self-monitored, there was no one to stop Norfolk Southern from operating dangerously. If fact, this disaster has been called “wholly preventable.”

So far, a total of eight lawsuits from local businesses and residents have sprung up against Norfolk Southern, seeking a combined $5 million for property damage, economic loss, and toxic chemical exposure. Additionally, the EPA has announced that it will fine Norfolk Southern up to $70,000 a day if Norfolk Southern does not finish cleaning up the toxic chemicals.

This is a necessary wake-up call for freight rail disasters. An estimated 25 million Americans live near freight rail lines, making them vulnerable to disasters like this. In fact, if the train that derailed in East Palestine had derailed less than an hour later, it would have been in Pittsburgh when it crashed and spewed these toxic chemicals, affecting 300,000 people instead of 5,000. This regulation of toxic chemicals in America is so bad that the US is currently averaging one chemical accident every two days. The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters found that there were more than 30 hazardous chemical incidents recorded in the first seven weeks of 2023 alone. We need to create effective oversight and increase regulation of industries like the freight rail industry. If we keep letting them cut costs wherever they want, more disasters will occur.

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