By Nicole Trinkl
An approximately 150-car Norfolk Southern freight train heading to Illinois from Pennsylvania carrying hazardous chemicals derailed and caught fire on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, causing a massive chemical spill.
The New York Times reported that 20 of the train's 150 cars were transporting chemicals including: vinyl chloride (PVC), which, if exposed to, can cause dizziness and disorientation, as well as liver angiosarcoma and cancer; ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, which can cause nose irritation, eye irritation, headaches and vomiting; butyl acrylate, which can cause breathing problems as well as eye and skin irritation; ethylhexyl acrylate, which can cause skin, eye and respiratory irritation; and isobutylene, which can cause dizziness and drowsiness.
According to The Washington Post, a wheel overheated and caught fire, resulting in the train's derailment.
Even though the fire department knew the train was on fire when it derailed, they could not put it out immediately due to the risk of exposure to the chemicals. On Feb. 6, with the fear that an explosion would occur due to temperatures rising in the derailed cars, authorities evacuated 1,500 residents and carefully released the vinyl chloride from five cars in order to prevent an explosion from occurring. A substantial toxic plume later formed in the air covering a large area of the community. Two days later, on Feb. 8, the fire was extinguished, and evacuation orders were lifted despite locals' fears.
The White House released a fact sheet stating their support for the East Palestine community and explained the roles different organizations played in addressing the aftermath of the incident. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted several tasks, including tests to monitor air quality, screen homes for contaminants, check groundwater to ensure drinking water was safe and secure Norfolk Southern's commitment to covering clean-up costs.
The EPA released a statement on Feb. 14 addressing what progress they had been able to make.
"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 Feb. 8 for review prior to the state's decision to lift the evacuation,” the statement said. “EPA has assisted with the screening of 396 homes under a voluntary screening program offered to residents, and no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified."
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Department of Transportation investigated the cause of the derailment and determined Norfolk Southern's compliance with rail safety regulations. They are currently working on improving railway safety in order to prevent accidents like these from occurring.
The Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also been sent to conduct public health testing to ensure the safety of everyone living in the community.
Norfolk Southern has been sued by a number of different companies due to the devastating damages the accident has caused the state of Ohio, as well as the local communities surrounding the derailed train.
According to USA Today, Norfolk Southern media relations specialist Connor Spielmaker stated that the company would be sending $1,000 checks to East Palestine residents as compensation for what residents have to deal with as a result of the accident.
News Nation interviewed a local family, Jamie and Chris Wallace, along with their 5-year-old daughter, revealing that they were diagnosed with upper respiratory infections days after leaving their home in East Palestine.
“I knew something was different when we left town and there was that chemical smell in your nose, as if you were in the bathroom cleaning with bleach and you walk out and you still smell that bleach in your nose,” Jaime Wallace said.
Not only have people’s health been at risk, but the environment has suffered too. According to Mary Mertz, director of Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 3,500 fish of 12 different species have died as a result of the chemicals released from the train.
Despite authorities' assurances regarding air and water safety, many locals have been hesitant to return to their homes in the fear that they might develop health issues like that of the Wallace’s family.
On top of this, less than two weeks after the derailment in Ohio, BBC reported another Norfolk Southern Train derailment in Van Buren Township, Michigan. Although this derailment resulted in no chemical leaks, people are concerned that another accident like the Ohio derailment will occur again.