Ohio Train Derailment

Nanditha Ram '25

On the forefront of current environmental news, on February 3rd, residents of a small community in Ohio witnessed one of the worst US hazardous train derailments in recent years. The 151 car train was passing though East Palestine, Ohio when 38 cars derailed. They contained large amounts of chemicals such as vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene – all materials that are considered toxic to both humans and the environment [1]. These materials may threaten the atmosphere and health of residents and nearby ecosystems in the coming months and years. 

Environmental experts, the government, and the railroad company in question, Norfolk Southern, have evaluated both the effects and possible solutions extensively. Yet, many locals question if it is enough.

Contaminated Water and Soil: 

In clean up directly after the crash, over 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil and 1.1 million gallons of water were removed from the site [1]. In order to prevent an explosion, all vinyl chloride had to be burned, releasing billowing clouds of smoke [2]. Furthermore, all nearby water streams that have the potential of carrying contaminated substances, including Sulphur Run, a river near the derailment, have been rerouted [2]. Yet there is still much work to be done. Norfolk Southern continues to work strictly with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to clean up debris near the scene, and must reach set guidelines on soil and water levels each week. 

Health Concerns:

Although health authorities have used extensive testing to confirm safe water and air levels, citizens have noticed an uptick in overall sickness since the incident. Reports of sore throats, respiratory issues, and eye and skin conditions continue to worry residents and local governments alike [6]. Furthermore, smoke from the burnt vinyl chloride covered many nearby farms, spurring reports of respiratory issues and other ailments in animals. More than 3,500 fish died in local waterways, and moreover, chemicals were also found in the West Virginia part of the Ohio River [4]. Hence, many believe that further testing is needed for a comprehensive review, as the uncertain methods of EPA testing and personal experience have left residents unconvinced [4]. Norfolk Southern, the company at fault, even refused to attend a town meeting, leaving more questions unanswered [5]. 

Life for Citizens: 

Small businesses are still reeling from the effects of the crash, the self-named “scar” that will now be part of East Palestine’s history [3]. Shortly after the crash, many parts of the town were forced to evacuate [5]. But recently, farmers and other citizens alike have opted to leave the city voluntarily, feeling not only extreme fear for the long term effects of the crash, but also distrust in their government to fully solve the crisis. For some though, it is difficult to simply leave because of financial problems. As Russell Murphy, resident, points out, he and his family hope to get out, but are forced to wait for potential buyers in order to actually leave [5]. 

Train Regulation: 

Since the Norfolk Southern train contained both toxic and nontoxic materials, the state did not receive warning that a train carrying hazardous materials was passing through. Hence, many officials are calling for stricter forced transparency in the railway industry. [4]. Furthermore, some are vouching to reinstate a prior law that the Trump Administration repealed in 2017, one that they maintain could have stopped the derailment of many of the cars. The law was passed in 2014 and forced all trains that carried hazardous materials to maintain electric brakes. Citizens of the town specifically point to vague EPA regulations of the soil underneath tracks [2] to claim a lack of government regulation, and overall train company exploitation. 

Furthermore, Pennsylvania governor Shapiro claims that Norfolk Southern gave officials “inaccurate” information after the accident and therefore added “risk” to the situation, while Ohio officials continue to look into legal action against the company. As even the EPA threatens the company, stating they must “clean up the mess they made” and claiming hefty fees if not [2], the company should cooperate with officials to hopefully mitigate further issues. 




[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/22/us/politics/ohio-train-derailment-farms-chemicals.html

[4] https://www.statnews.com/2023/02/21/east-palestine-train-chemicals/