Derailment and Doubt


Dark smoke rises from the accident in East Palestine, Ohio. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license.)

Leo Burchell, Editor

On February 3rd, 2023, about 40 cars of a freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The train had 150 total cars, with three people onboard. No one onboard was killed or injured; however, residents in surrounding areas have become concerned about the pollution resulting from the derailment and its effects on human and wildlife health.

One mechanical problem was reported before the derailment occurred. 49 cars ended up in a burning pile giving off black smoke that concerned onlookers. Some cars were carrying hazardous chemicals like vinyl chloride, which has been scientifically linked to types of cancer, and butyl acrylate. At a press conference, the Ohio governor stated that officials were not told the train would be traveling in the state because the cars were marked as non-hazardous, despite their contents. Officials noticed chemical spillage into nearby streams of water and set up measures to prevent the pollutants from spreading further. The EPA started to monitor air quality to ensure the safety of nearby citizens.

A few days after the derailment, the East Palestine mayor declared a state of emergency, and residents in a one-mile radius of the derailment were quickly evacuated. The temperature in one of the cars began to climb. Officials had two options: risk an explosion caused by the vinyl chloride that would send shrapnel flying, or burn the vinyl chloride. They chose the latter. Experts then released and burned the vinyl chloride, resulting in large black clouds of smoke. Residents in counties close to the explosion made reports of a chemical smell. On February 9th, the evacuated residents were allowed to return home.

File:Aerial view Norfolk Southern freight train derailment Feb 2023.jpg
This aerial view of the derailment, taken by a drone, shows a segment of the derailed cars.

Thousands of fish in nearby streams died after the chemical spill resulting from the derailment. After the burn of the vinyl chloride, many citizens reported that their pets had died, though further verification is needed. Officials from Michigan and Texas reported that contaminated materials had been disposed of in their states without their knowledge. Norfolk Southern Railway, the railroad which the freight train hails from, offered $1,000 to residents to pay for the costs of their evacuation. They eventually pledged $2.5 million to a “community support fund.” The company also has pledged money to Pennsylvania citizens affected by the derailment.

Citizens in East Palestine and surrounding communities are still concerned over the possible contamination and health risks resulting from the derailment and release of chemicals. There are worries over quickly spreading air and water pollution. The EPA reports that they have tested air quality in many homes without finding any dangerous conditions. However, citizens are still reporting health problems, and some feel as if they cannot trust their government.