Chemicals from Train Derailment Impact the Ohio River Watershed

By Heather Sprouse, Ohio River Coordinator,

On February 3rd around 9pm, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in the village of East Palestine, OH – 1 mile west of the PA border, 20 miles north of West Virginia’s northern panhandle and 16 miles from the Ohio River. The train that derailed was carrying at least five different toxic chemicals.  Following the accident, residents began to report rashes, headaches, coughs, digestive upset, dizziness and nausea. Fish, wildlife, livestock and pets died.  

The timeline for this event is complex. Our friends at Ohio River Valley Institute (ORVI) created this graphic to help us understand what happened during the immediate aftermath. 

One toxic chemical of concern is vinyl chloride. For fear of an uncontrolled explosion, on Monday February 6th, Norfolk Southern chose to “vent” this substance from 5 railcars by doing a controlled burn, a hasty maneuver without full approval from government agencies. This chemical burn forced citizens to flee for their lives, told by their governor that it was a matter of life and death. 

While vinyl chloride is itself a carcinogen, the burning of the chemical releases hydrogen chlorine and phosgene, which can be immediately lethal. Phosgene, a highly toxic, colorless gas with a strong odor was notoriously used as a weapon during World War I. 

Another chemical of concern is butyl acrylate that was released into nearby streams, 16 miles from the Ohio River.  The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) is the agency tasked with monitoring the Ohio River for pollution to protect drinking water quality. The data released from ORSANCO reveals that butyl acrylate made it into the Ohio River. ORSANCO worked around the clock with local and state emergency response officials and environmental agencies to provide technical assistance and data to communities and government agencies, as it became available. However, ORSANCO is working with aging equipment and a limited budget. 

On February 13, Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources confirmed that more than 40,000 aquatic creatures, including minnows and crayfish, died in waterways near the crash site.  Despite the plethora of reported sicknesses from citizens and the death of wildlife, livestock and household pets, officials from ODNR, OEPA and EPA have consistently repeated that the municipal water is safe to drink. Well water is still being tested. Citizens, citing doubts around the transparency and thoroughness of this information, have sought independent tests and are awaiting results. 

There are so many ways in which the railroad industry, including Norfolk Southern, knowingly put our communities at risk. Last year, Norfolk Southern actively blocked safety rules that could have prevented this disaster. They paid millions to executives while shedding safety concerns during staff cuts. They pressured the Obama Administration to exempt trains from carrying combustible chemicals being labeled as hazardous. They contributed millions of dollars to aid in the successful lobbying of the Trump Administration to roll back safety regulations, including mandates for the installation of modern brakes. 

Additionally, Norfolk Southern did not immediately disclose all of the substances on their train– it wasn’t until February 10 that an EPA report revealed the full list. The five chemicals carried by this long train were released into the soil, the air and into our shared watershed. And it was clear by the rushed track repair just after the crash that the priority of Norfolk Southern was to get the railroad functional again as quickly as possible. 

These actions resulted in contaminated soil remaining under the tracks, left to seep into the ground as the rains set in.  

Citizens are frustrated, angry and rightfully scared. Residents are concerned about the long term and cumulative effects of these chemical exposures. Will there be long term medical monitoring? What will be their cancer risk if people stay and raise their families in East Palestine? Will residents be adequately compensated for the emergency housing and cleaning supplies they had to invest in? What does this mean for the value of homes? Can folks plant vegetables in the soil? Can they collect rainwater to water their gardens? Community members worry about losing a way of life. And while yes, the ongoing disaster in East Palestine is a story of faulty brakes and corporate greed, the bigger picture here is about the injustice of plastics.  

East Palestine, like the surrounding upper Ohio River Valley, is at the center of several overlapping environmental justice crises happening simultaneously – most of them caused by the oil, gas and plastics industries. Fracked gas wells across the upper Ohio River Valley are mined for the Natural Gas Liquids that are used make plastic –  while leaking methane into our air and resulting in water that is contaminated with PFAS and radioactive waste. This Norfolk Southern train carried chemicals used to make plastics as well as plastic pellets. This train crashed less than 25 miles from Shell’s new facility in Pennsylvania that turns fracked natural gas into the building blocks of plastic. While this disaster in East Palestine is especially bad, the environmental justice crisis is systematic. The plastics industry puts the health and safety of our precious water resources and communities at risk. 

The government has a responsibility to help impacted communities create and implement long-term solutions to these problems. Rules and regulations are needed to keep communities and water resources safe.  Safety rules – like labelling these types of chemicals as hazardous – must be in place to protect public health. And when disaster strikes, corporations must be held fully accountable for damage to communities. 

Local groups, like River Valley Organizing, have mobilized the community of East Palestine to advocate for their health and the restoration of their environment. WV Rivers Coalition stands in solidarity with these folks on the ground and will continue to advocate for long term medical monitoring, independent environmental testing, and access to thorough, reliable and transparent data. Decision makers are obligated to help East Palestine recover and, critically, to make sure this never happens again. 

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