A small town in Ohio, approximately 128 kilometres (80 miles) south of Lake Erie — not too far from the many cities and towns of southern Ontario — played host to a nightmarish scenario earlier this month when a train crashed and exploded, spewing toxic chemicals into the environment.
Residents who returned to the town of East Palestine after evacuation orders were lifted reported strange odours and dead animals, leaving some locals questioning if it truly is safe to return home. The Environmental Protection Agency maintains that the air and water around the crash site is safe.
Fingers are being pointed at Norfolk Southern, the operator of the train, for helping lobby against railroad safety regulations that could have mitigated the impacts of the crash. A new lawsuit aims to get the company to pay for medical examinations for locals in case there are long-term health impacts associated with the leaked chemicals.
Timeline of events
On Feb. 3, a train carrying vinyl chloride and nine other hazardous chemicals flew off the rails and started a massive fire just outside East Palestine, a small town of about 5,000. No injuries or deaths were reported.
The fire continued to rage through the weekend and locals said little information was communicated to them until the night of Feb. 5, when forced evacuations began due to concerns the train wreck would explode. Officials said they observed a “drastic temperature change” in one of the rail cars, and feared a potential explosion could send shrapnel flying up to a mile.
The remaining residents in the town frantically packed overnight bags and some were forced to leave beloved pets behind. One woman told the Associated Press that she left town a day early because her youngest son’s “eyes turned red as tomato and he was coughing a lot,” after the train derailed.
To avert the explosion, crews released the contents of five tankers full of vinyl chloride, an extremely combustible substance that is used in plastic production. Vinyl chloride is also associated with increased risk of liver cancer and other cancers, according to the U.S. National Cancer Institute.
As the toxic chemicals were drained into a trench, crews ignited a controlled burn to get rid of the substances. A loud boom was heard by reporters that afternoon and the burn sent up a massive plume of phosgene gas and hydrogen chloride in a massive black cloud that was visible from meteorologists’ radars.
Phosgene gas is a colourless gas with a strong odour that can cause vomiting and breathing troubles. It is highly toxic and was used as a weapon in World War I.
On Wednesday, two days after the controlled burn and five days after the derailment, officials lifted evacuation orders and told residents they could return to their homes. Authorities, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), said air and water samples had been analyzed and came back normal.
Investigators say the train derailed because of a broken axle. Security footage 20 miles back on the rails showed the undercarriage of one of the train’s cars ablaze with sparks flying, raising questions about why the crew wasn’t aware of the malfunction.
As some residents began to filter back into town, they reported strange smells and dead animals. People were also surprised and worried by the sounds of passing trains, already running through the village again so soon after the accident.
A couple who live about five miles from where the train derailed spotted hundreds of dead fish, belly up in the local tributary, Leslie Run. Other people reported dead chickens and shared social media photos of dead dogs and foxes in the area.
An official with the Ohio EPA said material had entered the waterways and killed fish but the drinking water was safe.
Mayor Trent Conaway acknowledged peoples’ frustrations with the lingering odours, and promised the village is “not just taking the word” of rail operator Norfolk Southern Railway and has EPA representatives involved in air testing. The village’s drinking water system is being tested daily and is safe, he said.
“All of the readings we’ve been recording in the community have been at normal concentrations, normal backgrounds, which you find in almost any community,” James Justice, a representative of the US Environmental Protection Agency, said at a briefing Wednesday.
Norfolk Southern Railway is offering residents free air quality readings inside their homes, and also said it will reimburse residents for costs incurred during the evacuation.
About 300 requests for air testing in homes have been received so far, Columbiana County EMA Director Peggy Clark said.
And yet, some East Palestine locals are choosing not to return home, and questioning whether it will ever be safe to do so. Some residents took to social media with doubts about the handling of the accident and whether they can trust what officials are telling them about the safety of the town.
A hazardous materials expert told local affiliate WBKN that he was surprised that residents were allowed back into the evacuation zone, a one-mile radius around the crash site, so soon following the controlled burn. He speculated that five to 20 years down the line, locals may see clusters of cancer diagnoses.
He urged residents to get a check-up as a record of their current health status in case of possible implications from the chemical spill down the line.
Some residents said they have begun to experience headaches and sickness since the derailment.
A lawsuit was filed Thursday by two Pennsylvania residents who are calling for Norfolk Southern to pay for medical screenings and related care for anyone living within a 30-mile (48-kilometre) radius of the crash to determine who was affected by the release of toxic substances.
The lawsuit also is seeking undetermined damages.
Norfolk Southern’s track record
An investigation into Norfolk Southern by independent news outlet The Lever found that the company has laid off thousands of rail workers, despite safety concerns about overworked and understaffed crews.
The company also fought off a shareholder initiative that would have required executives to “assess, review, and mitigate risks of hazardous material transportation,” SEC filings show.
The Lever found that Norfolk Southern helped lobby the Trump administration to gut legislation that would have improved braking systems across the nation’s railroads. The regulators specifically killed a provision for trains carrying hazardous flammable materials to be equipped with an electronic braking system.
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Norfolk Southern itself previously lauded this braking system but nonetheless pressed regulators to repeal the Obama-era rule, claiming it would “impose tremendous costs without providing offsetting safety benefits.”
“Would (electronic) brakes have reduced the severity of this accident? Yes,” said Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), in an interview with 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.”
— with files from The Associated Press