An Accident of Business as Usual: Mangled Train Cars, Fires and Chemical Contamination

Cloud of chemicals above Ohio: Photo by Reddit

On Friday, February 3, 2023, a freight train with many cars was headed from Madison, Illinois to Conway Pennsylvania. But at 9:00 PM the train, loaded with a variety of goods, including toxic chemicals, derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. The result was destruction, extreme pollution, and possible ecological death, immediate and chronic. About 50 cars crashed onto each other. They left a mangled and charred mass of boxcars and flames.

On February 10, 2023, the US Environmental Protection Agency, from its regional office in Chicago, Illinois, notified Norfolk Southern, the corporate owner of the derailed train, about its “potential liability” for the damage the fires and chemical contamination the broken up trains caused to people and the environment: It said that “roughly 150 rail cars derailed. Approximately 20 rail cars were listed as carrying hazardous materials. Cars containing vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether are known to have been and continue to be released to the air, surface soils, and surface waters.”

Of the released chemical, vinyl chloride, a colorless flammable gas, is certain to cause large harm. It is used for mass production of plastic products. Vinyl chloride causes cancer, and breathed at large quantities, causes death. The black smoke and fires billowing from the explosive site in New Palestine, Ohio, reached heavens, the winds pushing the cancer gas and smoke into people’s homes and creak and river waters and wildlife. In addition, burning vinyl chloride adds poisons to the air: hydrogen chloride and phosgene, both extremely dangerous. Phosgene dates from WWI chemical warfare.

On February 14, 2023, Debra Shore, EPA Regional Administrator, assured the residents of East Palestine their troubles were nearly over, at least they did not have to worry about breathing vinyl chloride. Shore said:

“EPA Region 5’s number one priority is – and will always be – the health and safety of communities across the region. That’s why as soon as EPA was notified of the Norfolk Southern train derailment on Friday, February 3, EPA personnel were on-site by 2 a.m. Saturday morning to assist with air monitoring. Since then, EPA has been boots-on-the-ground, leading robust air-quality testing… Since the fire went out on February 8, EPA air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment. Air monitoring data was provided to state health agencies on February 8 for review prior to the state’s decision to lift the evacuation…

“EPA Region 5 is also working closely with Ohio EPA to determine what impact the spill has had on surface and ground water. State and local agencies are conducting sampling throughout the Ohio River to ensure drinking water intakes aren’t affected, and EPA is continuing to assist the state with sampling efforts at water treatment intake points along the Ohio River.”

These EPA assurances that no more vinyl chloride gas was in the homes of the residents of East Palestine may be credible, at least for a few days. Ohio and other neighboring states also rushed to assure their residents that all was well with the air and drinking water. But these soothing messages do not explain why the deadly accident happened. Was the reason of derailment a mechanical problem? Not good brakes? Or more likely, oligarchic corporate power and the terrible treatment of the railroad workers?

The affected community, the few thousands of people living in East Palestine, will pay a terrible price from the lingering disease and death fingerprints of the derailment. Who is going to fund their protection, health care and healing? Then what about nature? All the insects, frogs, honeybees, birds, and fish that either died immediately or survived in a harmed ecosystem full of poisonous pollution. Who is going to clean up their waters and habitat?

It was also inappropriate for the authorities to dump chemicals from several train cars and burn them out in the open. Is the ecological and human health harm insignificant? On the contrary, that harm will exacerbate the first shock of exposure of people and nature to the chemicals and fires of the derailment. Indeed, the spilled and burned chemicals may trigger an ecocide and human diseases of unprecedented dimensions and effects. In addition, will the East Palestine community be able to restart its life? Many people were evacuated from their homes. Will these people trust their own municipal government and the bureaucrats of Ohio and the US EPA?

Two weeks after the accident, East Palestine tried to be normal. Schools and restaurants and trains worked. Yet “nothing was normal at all. People sniffed the water coming out of their taps, checked rashes in the mirror and gazed down into creeks at the green-white shoals of fish and frogs floating belly up. The smell lingered, reminding some of a tire fire, others of burning plastic, mixed with model airplane glue or nail polish remover.”

Dead fish and smells and doubts about drinking water are signs of disaster and grave mistrust. People will be in shock for a long time. Some of them even suspected collusion between the US EPA and Norfolk Southern for the illegal burning of chemicals in their neighborhood.

Uncontrolled corporate power is responsible for the ecological and human tragedy of the derailment in Ohio. Corporate power is pervasive in America. This power of the oligarchy has dimmed the power of state governments and the US EPA. Infrastructure and vital services and transportation like railroads are falling apart. This failure to do the right thing, make the lives of most people easier and safer, all but assures these accidents will continue.

President Joe Biden should learn from this deadly accident. He should order his administration to strengthen public transport and force corporations to upgrade their trains and treat their workers humanely and pay them a good salary. Rather than wasting billions in a non-winnable and dangerous war in the Ukraine, he sould spend that money at home in fighting climate chaos.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.