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Train derailment, vinyl chloride in East Palestine

Norfolk Southern Railway (NS) freight train (loaded coal drag) at Marion, Ohio on 29 September 2018 (John St. James)

By Rebekah Jones

Officials say a mechanical issue with a rail car axle caused the derailment of about 50 cars on a 100-plus-car Norfolk Southern train, including 10 cars carrying hazardous materials, on February 3, 2023.

The accident occurred in East Palestine, Ohio – a town of about 5,000 along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border- on February 3, 2023 at about 9:00 PM ET.

Norfolk Southern waited two hours to report the incident to the National Response Center. Officials waited two days to issue evacuations.

Two streams tested positive for contamination the day after the accident, but Norfolk Southern waited a full week to build a dam and water bypass to prevent contamination of downstream waters.

Authorities started burning the toxic liquid to prevent seepage into ground water on February 6, but in doing so created two toxic gasses.

This is a lesser-of-two-evils predicament. Neither answer is good. Debate on whether the right option was chosen will continue until more information is made public about what happened.

One gas produced from burning vinyl chloride is hydrogen chloride. In addition to being a toxic gas, when it makes contact with water vapor in the atmosphere it comes back down as hydrochloric acid.

Hydrochloric acid is corrosive to pretty much everything but rubber.

This isn’t the same as what we typically think of when talking about acid rain, though – that’s sulfuric and nitrogen oxides.

Reports of hydrochloric acid have thus far been unsubstantiated in that it’s generally people on Twitter and TikTok showing vehicles impacted by corrosion, dead fish in the waters, etc.

The other is phosgene. Phosgene is a toxic gas that is a Schedule 3 substance as a chemical weapon. Hydrogen cyanide is also a Schedule 3 substance, for point of reference. Schedule I would be like Ricin, Mustard Gas, Novichok agents. Schedule II includes a lot of chemical weapons containing phosphorus bonded with methyl, ethyl or propyl atmos.

But vinyl chloride wasn’t the only toxic chemical released into the environment during the accident. Polyethylene, propylene glycol, combustible liquid nitrogen, polyvinyl, petroleum lube oil, and a host of known carcinogenic products also leaked and were burned.

How did we get here:

A lot of things contributed to this accident. There’s a lot of blame to go around.

De-regulation of the rail industry is a major problem.

Under Trump, rail lobbyists successfully nixed a 2015 rule requiring new electronic braking systems in routes carrying hazardous materials.

Looser restrictions on when upgrades are required, what level of monitoring is required, and of course the multitude of issues workers brought up in December 2022, including major safety issues.

The Biden administration made it illegal for rail workers to strike in December 2022, claiming such an act would be devastating to the US economy therefore the workers should be deprived on one of the most important aspects of labor rights.

The initial response to the disaster itself was wholly inadequate.

The evacuation zone was too small, residents weren’t given enough information, miscommunication from the multiple entities involved with the response has created confusion, and all of that has resulted in a lot of mis and disinformation online.

Some reports online say the train contained as many as 150 cars, others reported nearly 100 cars total, with 50 derailed and 20 containing hazardous materials. Norfolk Southern initially reported 14 cars carrying vinyl chloride were compromised.

The numbers were all over the place.

Posts and videos of massive fish die-offs, strange animal behavior and corrosive rainfall, inappropriate maps using weather radar to “track” the spread of the toxic fumes, and outdated press releases and mixed messages have flood the social media airwaves.

Comparisons to Chernobyl have become commonplace and are wildly inappropriate.

We’ll do a special on Chernobyl in April on the 37th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but I hope it goes without saying for now that the Earth has never experienced an unplanned disaster of that caliber in humanity’s short existence on this planet.

Erin Brockovich, a hero in America for her brave investigative work on cancer outbreaks caused by water contamination, tweeted for residents to “trust your eyes, ears and nose.”

She’s right to a point, but we must be careful in the advice we dispense, especially when toxic chemicals are concerned.

So that’s what happened THEN. What is the status NOW?

Monitoring at the site did register a spike in toxic gas, but the EPA says levels outside of the immediate crash zone do not exceed recommended health levels at this time.

However, less than half the homes had been screened for vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride before the EPA released a statement saying it was safe for residents to return home.

Additionally, the EPAs public statement contradicts the environmental monitoring reports showing unhealthy levels of hazardous contaminates, which also claims those spikes can’t be attributed to the crash because they were found both up and downwind (a nonsensical excuse for those of us who study toxic waste contamination).

FROM EPA: On February 6, 2023:

“Last night, U.S. EPA investigated a complaint of odors from the Darlington Township, Pennsylvania fire station. A team with air monitoring equipment was dispatched to the station, where they did not observe any contaminants above detection limits. At around 9 p.m. last night, air monitoring instruments detected increased concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) downwind of the derailment fire, but they remained below the screening level for VOCs.”

It’s hard to put much stock in what the EPA is reporting and the Biden Administration is saying after a reporter from News Nation was arrested for asking questions about the situation during the Ohio Governor’s press conference last week. When we sent a media request asking to confirm the most basic elements of the situation – like how many hazmat cars were breached – the EPA punted our questions back to the company, who has refused to comment.

Norfolk Southern, the company responsible, made an offer of $25,000 to the town to help with recovery. With roughly 5,000 people in East Palestine, Ohio, that comes out to be about $5 per person.

At least one lawsuit has already been filed by local residents, and the EPA issued a general notice of potential liability to Norfolk Southern on February 11, 2023.

Assistance for evacuated residents

Norfolk Southern Family Assistance Center: (800) 230-7049

To request air monitoring at your home

Residential Re-Entry Request Hotline: (330) 849-3919

Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency: (330) 424-7139

U.S. EPA Information Line: (215) 814-2400

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1 Comment

Rebekah, just wait until you hear that NS donated $10,000 to Gov DeWine re-election committee in January!!

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