Those who live in East Palestine, Ohio, and throughout the surrounding area are still learning the full impact of a recent train derailment. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) arrived at the scene of the accident and began work with Norfolk Southern, the transportation company that owns the railway, on cleaning the area.
At the time of this writing, we know an overheated wheel bearing played a role in the train derailment. The information was the result of a report released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Additional findings from the report include information about:
- The train. This was a 9,000-foot-long beast that contained a mix of cars. Some contained toxic chemicals, others did not.
- The speed. The train was operating under the maximum speed limit and appeared to follow all safety regulations.
- The crew. Thus far, it appears the crew was doing everything they needed to do to operate the train safely.
As noted above, the problem appears to be an overheated wheel bearing. An alarm went off which led train operators to apply the brakes to stop the train. When the crew went to inspect the bearing, they saw fire and smoke — the first indicator of what we now know was a thirty-eight-car derailment.
Eleven of the derailed train cars contained toxic chemicals.
#1: The train was carrying toxic vinyl chloride.
At this time, we know at least five of the derailed cars carried vinyl chloride. The United States Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry notes that vinyl chloride is a carcinogen. Chronic exposure can result in increased risk of liver cancer, can irate the respiratory tract, and cause damage to the central nervous system. Inhalation of this dangerous toxin can result in dizziness, fatigue, headache, and loss of consciousness.
#2: Other toxins are also a concern.
Vinyl chloride is extremely volatile and poses an explosion risk when overheated. In order to avoid a dangerous explosion, authorities at the scene chose to drain the liquid and light it on fire. Although removing the risk of an unpredictable explosion, it led to the need for fire management. This required the use of chemicals to put out the fires, chemicals including perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). When mixed with water, PFAS become a foam that is highly effective for extinguishing a fire.
The potential presence of PFAS is concerning as we are learning these forever chemicals are likely linked to liver damage, thyroid problems, obesity, and cancer.
#3: Negligence likely played a role in the derailment.
Railway companies generally have sensors present on their tracks to help detect and report any issues with trains as they pass. In this instance, the train passed three such detectors that noted rising temperatures in the problematic bearing. The first noted an almost 40 degrees increase in the bearing compared to the air around the train, the second, a 103-degree difference and the third a 253-degree difference.
There were almost twenty miles between each sensor. Skeptics are stating that the railways company should have had more sensors and that the presence of more regular sensors would have alerted the train’s engineers of the issue before it escalated into the catastrophic derailment that has now caused serious injury to a community and has the potential to negatively impact future generations.
Catastrophic crash could lead to change
The derailment has led to government response and the potential for legislative action. President Joseph Biden has stated his administration is open to new laws to help better ensure these types of accident do not happen again.
This is an evolving issue, legislatively and in the day-to-day lives of Ohioans. We will provide updates on the impact of this derailment as they become available.