“Three weeks after the toxic train derailment in Ohio, an independent analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data has found nine air pollutants at levels that, if they persist, could raise long-term health concerns in and around East Palestine…The analysis by Texas A&M University researchers stands in contrast to statements by state and federal regulators that air near the crash site is completely safe, despite residents complaining about rashes, breathing problems and other health effects.” The Washington Post, February 24, 2023
East Palestine, Ohio, a small town of about 5,000 residents, is a stone’s throw from the Pennsylvania border, and a three hour drive north and east from the capital city of Columbus. The recent train derailment and subsequent release of hazardous materials into the areas’ land, water and air has made national news for several weeks, and for good reason—this type of accident can happen practically anywhere, and for this community and surrounding area, it will have a decades-long impact.
By the way, I’m referring to the train derailment as an “accident” for lack of a more accurate description. When the director of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced its preliminary findings from an investigation of the derailment, she stated, and I’m paraphrasing, that it was no accident and completely preventable…but neither she nor the report explained what could have prevented it, at least not yet.
Putting aside other types of environmental disasters, like oil and gas pipeline leaks, oil rig explosions, groundwater and drinking water contamination from various manufacturing sources and the occasional nuclear power plant meltdown, train derailments with hazardous material spills don’t rank especially high on the list in frequency. According to the Association of American Railroads, trains transported 2.2 million carloads of chemicals in 2021 alone, and the vast majority, 99.9%, reached its destination without incident (specifically, this means without a release of chemicals caused by a train accident). But even if that is an accurate assessment, the remaining number, depending on how it’s calculated, is somewhere close to 80 incidents across all modes of transportation of hazardous materials in a single year. And if it’s your town or state plagued by decades of health problems and testing, remediation and monitoring activities, it will upend your life and thousands of others, as the people of East Palestine have learned.
The number of hazmat incidents resulting from crashes or derailments across all modes of transportation fell to 80 last year, down from more than 360 a decade ago, according to records from the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The largest share of incidents — 58 of 80 last year — occurred on highways, while the second-most share occurred on railroads. It is unclear whether chemical spills were involved in each case. The Washington Post, February 17, 2023
Because I live in Ohio and practiced environmental law for one of the state agencies involved in the remediation efforts at East Palestine, I’ve paid particularly close attention to the responses of the various government officials and agencies. I’ve read the analyses of journalists, environmental scientists, professors and others who have tried to make sense of this accident from an outsider’s perspective. Although none of us know how this sudden, hazardous materials release will eventually play out, according to NBC News, it might help to look at past, similar accidents to access the short and long-term impacts on the East Palestine community.
Over 40 years ago in September 1982, there was a train derailment in Livingston, Louisiana, that shares many similarities to the East Palestine accident—the Livingston derailment included a significant release of vinyl chloride, and emergency responders also chose to do a “controlled release” and burn off of that chemical to avoid a more dangerous and likely explosion. And the train cars that derailed in both Livingston and East Palestine were carrying ethylene glycol, known to cause “a sore throat and nausea at high concentrations”.
Livingston’s resident’s immediately complained of symptoms extremely similar to the people of East Palestine 40 years later: headaches, sore throats, nosebleeds, nausea, skin rashes, dizziness and respiratory flare-ups of bronchitis and asthma (the cancer diagnoses come years later). It shocked me that both government officials and local doctors in East Palestine seemed reluctant to connect the sudden onset of these symptoms with exposure to hazardous chemicals—from what I have read, and experienced talking with citizens when working at the Ohio EPA, these same symptoms have been recorded by regulatory agencies and medical professionals for over half a century. Even with exposure to vastly different chemicals, like Hexavalent Chromium in the groundwater and drinking water of Hinkley, California, for example, many of these symptoms overlap. It seems that in the last few days, though, more doctors have seen a number of patients with similar symptoms and are beginning to connect the dots.
But perhaps the most important similarity of these two toxic spills (and thousands of others) is the fear. Residents are afraid to drink their own tap water, afraid to breathe the air, afraid to plant their spring vegetable gardens or let their dogs out in their own backyards. Yes, overall there are fewer train derailments than 40 years ago, particularly with trains carrying hazardous materials, but today there also are more hazardous materials being transported and for longer distances.And there is still no quick fix for a massive hazardous materials release. The Livingston, Louisiana remediation and water monitoring continued for 30 years—it is a long and costly process and the locals lose not only their way of life, but their precious time.
That’s what Erin Brockovich, a 30 year environmental activist, said at the overflowing town hall she hosted in East Palestine on a Friday evening, just about three weeks after the train derailment. She also spent a day or two before the town hall, speaking individually with residents, and urging them to band together, ask questions and push for answers. “This is going to be a long game,” she said to the crowd.
If you’re interested in learning more about this train derailment and hazardous materials release, and what information and data the various agencies involved have produced to date and will produce in the future, I’ve provided a few resources below:
— First is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) website section devoted to the East Palestine derailment. It seems to be extremely comprehensive and forthcoming, especially when you access the various links it provides to separate documents and testing data.
Here are two documents accessible from this site I think are particularly important:
The unilateral order issued by the USEPA to Norfolk Southern on February 21, 2023. This document lays out the facts surrounding the derailment and exactly what testing and clean-up actions the railroad is required to complete and within what timeframes. It also includes as Appendix A, a list of the train cars that derailed, what each was carrying and how each car was emptied.
Important Note: The order requires Norfolk Southern to submit weekly reports and/or updates on their progress, which should be public documents and posted on the USEPA website for you review! If they are not posted, contact the Hotline number from the website or a local official, and request each of the required company updates.
For those who live in the area, or for others keeping track of the remediation efforts, it is important to know where the monitoring and testing are taking place.
— A copy of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Preliminary Report on the East Palestine train derailment issued on February 23, 2023. It briefly explains what the Board has examined so far and what remains for them to investigate.
— Finally, statistics compiled by Opensecrets.org detailing the amount of money spent by the major players in the railroad industry on federal lobbying efforts. The total for 2022 was $24,634,162. Norfolk Southern ranked fourth in lobbying money spent out of 53 clients listed for 2022, spending $1,800,000.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this recent environmental accident. Have you been following the developments? Where are you getting your information? Does this post provide helpful information for you? Please let me know in the Comment Section below.
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