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East Palestine Train Derailment
When #Chernobyl2.0 trends on Twitter should you worry? Everything you need to know and the questions remaining about the East Palestine train derailment.
If you spend any time on Twitter, you may have seen multiple trending topics around the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. There is much debate about the extent of the damage because of the derailment and the “controlled release” of 5 chemical tankers.
Sadly it took an entire week for this story to make its way to the public. Thanks to the individuals sharing it on social media because it has had little coverage from legacy media until now.
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Today I will do my best to share the timeline and the response to the East Palestine derailment and clarify what is true, what is sensationalized, and what is still not answered.
Events like this always take time to develop because historically, when you look at these kinds of industrial disasters, the initial reports come from the responsible party, in this case, Norfolk Southern, and they always play down the reality of the situation. Then politicians and news outlets repeat those reports.
This story is still developing and will continue to develop for some time. Like with every story, diversify your sources, get all sides, ask lots of questions, and do your best to make an informed decision.
East Palestine, Ohio derailment day 1
February 3 | Location of Derailment
Friday, February 3, 2023, A Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, OH, about an hour north of Pittsburgh, almost halfway to Cleveland. The rail line goes right through the town of East Palestine, and this derailment happened right on the edge of town on the border of PA and Ohio, approximately 20 miles north of the Ohio River.
Train cargo of vinyl chloride
The train was carrying a variety of industrial materials, including chemical compounds. Five of the cars contained vinyl chloride, a colorless but hazardous gas used to produce PVC plastic and vinyl products.
The tankers carrying the vinyl chloride were not breached but were at risk of exploding.
February 6 | Controlled Release creates hydrogen chloride and phosgene
The decision was made to do a controlled release of the vinyl chloride tankers was the best option of only bad options and necessary to prevent the tankers from exploding and causing a catastrophic explosion.
In a news conference Monday afternoon, February 6, 2023, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said: “To alleviate the risk of this shrapnel, Norfolk Southern Railway is planning a controlled release of the chemical at 3:30 p.m. The controlled release also has the potential to be deadly if inhaled.”
An official with Norfolk Southern Railway said, “The process we’re going to do today, we’re going to place a small shaped charge, it’s going to create a hole about 2 to 3 inches into the tank car. This will allow the material to come out of the tank car, it’ll go into a pit and trench that we have dug and set up for this operation. Inside that trench will be flares … That will then light off the material,” the official said.
High levels of vinyl chloride are toxic and classified as a human carcinogen that can affect the central nervous system and cause liver damage, including liver cancer. OSHA has the permissible limit of how much you can be exposed to it during an eight-hour shift as a 1 ppm part per million average over eight hours.
But doing a controlled release also creates a problem. When vinyl chloride burns, it decomposes into hydrogen chloride and phosgene.
Phosgene is highly poisonous and was used extensively during World War I as a choking agent. At the same time, hydrogen chloride is irritating and corrosive to any tissue with which it comes into contact.
The controlled release was conducted late afternoon of Monday, February 6, creating a massive smoke plume above the town for several hours.
February 6 | Evacuation Order Issued
The crash was reported at 8:55 p.m. Friday, February 3, and evacuations began shortly after and over the weekend within a 1-mile radius of the crash.
The evacuation zone was expanded when the decision was made on February 6 for the controlled release. DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro ordered an immediate evacuation of a 1-mile by 2-mile area surrounding East Palestine, including parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
February 8 | Evacuation Order Lifted
Wednesday, February 8, the evacuation order was lifted, and residents were told it was safe to return to their homes and were offered voluntary air testing.
Air and water samples were analyzed overnight, and the results led officials to deem it safe, East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick said at a news conference. However, there was no mention of the ground being monitored.
At this point, a full list of what chemicals the train was carrying had yet to be released—leaving many residents concerned about air and water quality and returning to their homes.
Resident Eric Whitining told The Post, the air smells like an “over-chlorinated swimming pool” and his eyes burn. He returned to his house the day authorities lifted the evacuation order. He can’t move his family of five out of their home, so he says he has no choice but to stay put and follow authorities’ instructions.
During the news conference, Scott Deutsch, the Norfolk Southern representative, revealed that butyl acrylate and non-hazardous lubricants had leaked.
What about the water?
It was revealed during the press conference that the city of Weirton, WV, located along the Ohio River, detected pollutants in their water and had to switch water supplies. Officials in Weirton said that was not accurate. Utilities Director Butch Mastrantoni explained that, by manipulating the city’s water sources, which did not include a full shut-off from the river, Weirton’s water remained safe from contamination.
“We were able to show it didn’t enter our finished water,” he said, explaining that workers at the plant continue to monitor the river until an all-clear is given.
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When asked about the fish that were appearing dead in the bodies of water around East Palestine, an official from the Ohio EPA acknowledged that “the toxicity of the material that entered the waterway was an immediate effect to the water life” but that the contaminants are at safe levels and the water supply remains safe.
According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, as of February 8th, the crash is believed to have resulted in the deaths of 3,500 fish across 7.5 miles of streams near East Palestine. However, it is working with the Ohio EPA and a company hired by Norfolk Southern to determine how many fish have been killed.
There have also been reports of wildlife dying and a woman’s chickens ten miles away from East Palstine.
Norfolk Southern’s clean-up efforts
Norfolk Southern has outlined the steps it plans to take to clean up the site.
Work has already been done to collect pooled liquids into a vacuum truck and prepare them for disposal. Surface water flow has been rerouted away from the derailment site, underflow dams are in place, and 180,000 gallons of liquid have been removed from the area.
Air quality is being monitored, but soil and surface water sampling is pending. As well as the well water results.
Learning From the Past
This is not the first time there has been a train accident carrying vinyl chloride. On November 30, 2012, a train derailed in Paulsboro, NJ, and one of the tanks carrying 20,000 gallons of vinyl chloride leaked into the water. However, this leak did not result in an explosion.
The immediate area was evacuated, and a stay-in-place order was issued for the surrounding area. A few days later, the stay-in-place order was lifted and escalated to an evacuation. Residents did not begin returning to their homes just over a week later.
The East Palestine derailment resulted in three tankers, each carrying 20,000 gallons leaking into the water and ground. Requiring an explosion resulting in a toxic plume in the air. However, residents were permitted to return home two days later.
A likely explanation for the significantly shorter amount of evacuation time is that vinyl chloride on fire, once into the atmosphere, is diluted and breaks down quickly.
But that does not mean that residents of East Palestine can completely trust the information that is being shared by Norfolk Southern.
Can we trust what we are being told?
At this point, five days after the derailment and two days after the control released created a toxic plume.
It appears that the air is not a major concern, but the question on many minds is, what about the water and ground?
During Wednesday’s press conference, we were told that the levels of contaminants in the drinking water were safe and that Norfolk Southern had installed a dam and water bypass system in the stream to prevent contamination of downstream waters. Although we do not know exactly when they were installed.
However, butyl acrylate was detected in Weirton, WV, which is located along the Ohio River.
EPA sends Norfolk Southern a letter
A letter the EPA sent to Norfolk Southern on February 10 included concerning revelations.
The EPA said substances released during the incident "were observed and detected in samples from Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek, and the Ohio River" and were also observed entering storm drains.
Meaning there are confirmed pollutants in the water. What pollutants?
According to the letter, “multiple rail cars and tankers were observed derailed, breached, and/or on fire, that included but not limited to” two chemicals were aware of vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate. Three additional toxic compounds are ethylene glycol mono butyl ether, Ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene.
The most shocking revelation from the letter was the following:
“Areas of contaminated soil and free liquids were observed and potentially covered and/or filled during reconstruction of the rail line including portions of the trench /burn pit that was used for the open burn off of vinyl chloride.”
To be clear, contaminants were buried, and the rail line was rebuilt over it.
During an interview with a hazardous materials specialist Sill Caggiano said, “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.”
Caggiano says ethylhexyl acrylate is especially worrisome. He says it’s a carcinogen, and contact with it can cause burning and irritation in the skin and eyes. Breathing it in can irritate the nose and throat and cause coughing and shortness of breath.
Isobutylene is also known to cause dizziness and drowsiness when inhaled.
On Sunday, February 12, the EPA posted a complete list from Norfolk Southern that details the freight cars involved in the derailment and what they were hauling. It confirmed the chemicals mentioned cited in the February 10 letter and the condition of each tanker.
Did Norfolk Southern know about the three additional chemicals at the time of the February 8 press conference?
During the February 8 press conference, where we were told that the water was safe, Scott Deutsch, the Norfolk Southern representative, mentioned that butyl acrylate and non-hazardous lubricants had leaked.
The EPA released a letter just two days later listing three additional toxic chemicals. I question if the EPA became aware of these additional chemicals because of the list submitted to them by Norfolk Southern—leading me to wonder if Norfolk Southern knew about these additional chemicals and the condition of the tankers that held them at the time of the press conference.
What caused the derailment?
The Post-Gazette obtained surveillance video footage from Butech Bliss, a metal processing company about 20 miles west of East Palestine, showing flames and sparks coming from the wheels of one of the Norfolk Southern train cars as it passed by at about 8:12 p.m.
The question is, when did the crew know about this “hot axel?”
A hot box detector is approximately a mile from this site in Salem, still 20 miles from East Palestine. The hot box detector sets off an alarm if a hot axel is detected.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says an alarm went off, but it happened shortly before the derailment after it passed a hot box detector in East Palestine and the emergency breaks engaged.
Did the hot box detector in Salem, 20 miles away, not go off, or did it go off and it was ignored?
The NTSB is in possession of the train’s data recorder and audio recording, which are being analyzed. They are also checking if all the detectors are working properly. It will be 30 days before they release preliminary results.
Today during a press conference where Gov. DeWine provided an update on the derailment, he revealed that Norfolk Southern had not designated the train a “high hazardous material train.”
Could electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes have helped?
Backed by lobbyists and Senate Republicans, the Trump administration reversed part of a rule that would have implemented better braking systems on our rails.
Regulators eliminated rules requiring trains carrying hazardous, flammable materials to have electronic brakes. These brakes could stop the train faster than regular air brakes.
Norfolk Southern had touted the new ECP brake system, which they claim can shorten train stopping distances by up to 60% compared to standard air brakes.
Despite this, the company still pushed for the repeal of the rule, saying it would be too costly and wouldn't bring any additional safety benefits.
Biden's administration hasn't reinstituted the brake rule or widened the scope of trains requiring stricter safety regulations.
“Would ECP brakes have reduced the severity of this accident? Yes,” Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), told The Lever. “The railroads will test new features. But once they are told they have to do it… they don’t want to spend the money.”
Norfolk Southern did not answer questions about what kind of braking system was operating on the train that derailed in Ohio.
It appears this is a case of profit over safety, and who stands to make the most money off of Norfolk Southern? Vanguard, JP Morgan, and BlackRock.
Water is currently everyone’s biggest concern.
There does not appear to be immediate cause for concern, but in incidents such as these, only time can tell us the extent of the damage.
The EPA is continuing to do air screenings. However, there are still no current and up-to-date test results on pollutants in the water, even though it was revealed in the EPA's February 10 letter that runoff from the derailment had affected surrounding water.
Norfolk Southern contractors visited homes over the weekend that were identified as having at-risk drinking water wells, the East Palestine Police Department said.
According to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's office, free water testing of private wells was made available through an independent contractor hired by Norfolk Southern. In the meantime, the state is encouraging people to use bottled water if they're worried about potential contamination.
But it’s not just East Palestine and the surrounding area concerned about the water's pollutants. A huge part of the United States is concerned because the derailment occurred on the Ohio River, which runs along the southern border of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois before it connects with the Mississippi.
We are still awaiting updated water test results; only time will tell how and if these chemicals will have long-term effects on the ground and possibly the groundwater.
How to stay informed
Suppose you want to keep up with this developing story. In that case, I recommend you watch my daily stories on my Instagram and consider following the accounts below that are currently on the ground, the local news outlets, and the EPA updates.
It's Meseidy is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.