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The Environmental Disaster of the Ohio Train Derailment
On February 3, 2023, a train carrying hazardous and combustible materials derailed near East Palestine, Ohio. The derailment ignited a fire and filled the skies of nearby small towns with a thick, black smoke – affecting miles of residents and wildlife in all directions.
Days later – in an alleged attempt to diminish further damage and risk of explosion – officials elected to conduct a controlled burn of cars affected by the derailment. This controlled burn involved the burning of five cars of vinyl chloride – a chemical that transforms into hydrogen chloride and phosgene when burned, the latter of which was a well-known gas used for chemical warfare throughout World War 1.
In the days since the burn, East Palestine residents and citizens across the country have questioned whether the burning of vast amounts of these hazardous chemicals might pose potential short-term or long-term health risks.
Returning to East Palestine
Residents of East Palestine and other surrounding areas were strongly urged to evacuate before the commencement of the controlled burn. On February 8 the fire was extinguished and officials concluded that air quality was safe enough for residents to return to their homes. However, in the days since the derailment, East Palestine residents have been weary of health conditions brought on by the initial chemical spill and burning of vinyl chloride. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine addressed these concerns in a public statement published on February 17.
“We know that the science says that East Palestine is safe, but we also know that residents are very worried,” said Governor DeWine. “They are asking themselves ‘Is my headache just a headache? Or is it a result of the chemical spill? Are other medical symptoms caused by the spill?’ Those are very legitimate questions and residents deserve answers.”
In response to these concerns, the city of East Palestine has announced the establishment of a ‘medical clinic to engage with residents, answer questions, evaluate any symptoms, and provide medical expertise.’
East Palestine will also receive the support from the CDC and Health and Human Services – both deployed by President Biden and the White House.
“Our priority, as I said two days ago, is the health and safety of the community,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a briefing on Thursday. “That is indeed our top priority for the moment as we look at what they’re dealing with in Ohio.”
Official Statements by the Rail
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published a statement on February 14, stating the investigation into the derailment is open and ongoing. NTSB claims “an overheated wheel bearing” as the initial reason for the incident that led to 38 cars derailed and an ensuing fire which led to an additional 12 effected cars.
The rail company responsible for the derailment – Norfolk Southern – published a statement on February 15, announcing actions taken since the derailment to minimize harm and correct the effects of any chemical contamination.
Norfolk claims to have completed more than 400 in-home air tests in conjunction with the EPA, implemented an extensive outdoor air monitoring program, actively sampled the Village of East Palestine’s drinking water supply (including private wells in areas potentially impacted by the incident), distributed over $1.5 million in direct financial assistance to more than 1,000 families, and established a $1 million fund available immediately to the community.
Residents of East Palestine’s Concerned
As many specialized professionals and officials contemplate the short-term and long-term effects of the Norfolk Southern train derailment, Ohio residents are frustrated by how they are expected to return to life as usual among such uncertainty.
Tension were quickly escalated on Wednesday following the revelation that Norfolk Southern would not be sending representatives to a meeting with residents, despite recent commitment to do so. This would have been the first opportunity for East Palestine residents to speak face to face with Norfolk Southern and express their concerns.
“I want answers,” started Mayor Trent Conaway. “Norfolk Southern didn’t show up. They didn’t feel it was safe.”
Despite the town meeting hosting members of the state and federal environmental protection agencies, residents remained unconvinced their community was free from harm caused by the chemical spill and burning.
“Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or water,” one woman called out during the meeting.
Some residents of East Palestine continue to complain of rashes, headaches and nausea, however, officials state air quality in East Palestine and surrounding areas is stable and non-hazardous. Anyone experiencing symptoms they consider concerning are encouraged to visit their doctor.