By Julia Lankisch, Staff Writer
On Feb. 3, residents of East Palestine, Ohio witnessed a plume of pitch black smoke rising over their town.
A train carrying vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate and other chemicals derailed. In response, authorities decided to burn off the vinyl chloride to prevent an explosion; the controlled burn is what caused the pillar of smoke.
Residents were immediately ordered to evacuate their homes until further notice. They did not return until five days later, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told them it was safe. Upon returning, some residents reported headaches, nausea, sore throats and rashes.
Vinyl chloride is carcinogenic. It can cause several types of rare liver cancers, leukemia and lymphoma. When burned or released into the air and water, vinyl chloride combusts into hydrochloric acid, an extremely corrosive substance even at low exposure levels, and phosgene, which causes eye, nose and throat irritation.
The 11 cars carrying hazardous materials also contained butyl acrylate, a glue and paint precursor known to cause various respiratory ailments, dizziness, nausea and headaches. It spilled into the Ohio River, according to the EPA.
The EPA announced that no toxic materials have been found downstream from the disaster, citing preliminary tests its toxicologists have been conducting over the past several weeks. Cincinnati’s drinking water will be unaffected, as water officials have ceased intake from the Ohio River.
According to the EPA, only people who draw water from private wells need to use bottled water. The drinking water from municipal wells in the area is safe. However, local authorities have reported the deaths of about 3,500 fishes over the last few weeks, and residents have reported dead livestock and pets.
Chemists have expressed concerns that the initial sensors used to test the air are not sensitive enough to detect the small amounts of airborne chemicals that are left at this point — they are made to detect significantly large amounts, not what is leftover in the atmosphere.
Governor Mike DeWine noted in a press conference last Wednesday that state officials were unaware of the contents of the train in advance. Norfolk Southern did not classify the materials as high-hazardous, and few knew about the chemicals that were passing through their communities.
Rail workers have been warning industry officials for years that these issues could possibly be catastrophic, and there are several measures that can be taken to prevent spills and derailments in the future.
Oftentimes these disasters arise from a lack of sufficient staff. Railroads have decreased their workforce by approximately 30% over the last six years, and trains have only become longer, meaning there are more cars per person than in years prior.
The installation of electronic pneumatic brakes, while expensive to railroad companies, allows all the cars to brake at the same time rather than just the first car. An Obama-era law required these systems, and it was rolled back during the Trump administration.
A town hall was held for East Palestinians to express their concerns about the derailment and subsequent events. According to CNN, one resident shouted, “Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or in the water?”
Residents have reported feeling unsafe in the area. They have spotted what looks like oil slicks — likely butyl acrylate — in their waterways, and the air still smells like “nail polish remover and burning tires.”
Senator Sherrod Brown expressed his understanding for the people of the town, saying that they have a right to be skeptical about the quality of their air and water despite initial testing results. The Ohio Department of Health also announced at the town hall that they will be setting up a clinic to address medical concerns. The staff will include doctors, nurses, mental health care specialists and toxicologists.
The Norfolk Southern CEO was not present at the meeting, citing safety concerns. He instead addressed East Palestinians in a letter, saying the company will be there as long as necessary to ensure the welfare of the village’s residents and that they are investigating the cause of the derailment.
Brown assured citizens he would hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the damages caused. In the meantime, President Joe Biden and DeWine have sent the Centers’ for Disease Control and Prevention and other expert assessment teams to investigate any risk left to the residents.