On February 3rd, a Norfolk Southern Corporation train carrying hazardous chemicals from Pennsylvania to Illinois derailed in the small town of East Palestine. 50 of 150 cars on the train derailed, causing an explosion. Aware that some of those cars were carrying dangerous chemicals, authorities decided to drill holes in five of the train cars, allowing the chemicals they were carrying to flow out into pits. The chemicals were lit, causing a large fire that created plumes of smoke.
Five of the many dangerous chemicals which were reportedly released from the cars include vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether. Human exposure to these chemicals can lead to various illnesses, with vinyl chloride being infamous for causing cancer of the liver, lungs, and leukemia. Short-term exposure to some of the chemicals causes dizziness and drowsiness while long-term exposure may result in hospitalization or death.
Many of the chemicals being transported on the train are known carcinogens, with some having been used during World War I by the U.S. for chemical warfare.
The derailment, release of chemicals, and subsequent fire led to the evacuation of 2,000 people. Residents of East Palestine have complained about the derailment and its consequences. There have been concerns over the contamination of the water and air in the area.
A meeting was supposed to be held with Norfolk Southern Corporation and the community of the small town on February 15th to draw a clearer picture of the disaster. Residents gathered at a local high school expecting an appearance from officials from the company. However, no one representing Norfolk Southern made an appearance.
“We know that many are rightfully angry and frustrated right now. Unfortunately, after consulting with community leaders, we have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threats to our employees and community members around this event stemming from increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties,” the company said in a statement. “With that in mind, Norfolk Southern will not be in attendance this evening.”
“We are not going anywhere. We are committed to East Palestine and will continue to respond to community concerns,” the company said in the statement.
Norfolk Southern Corporation reportedly distributed $1.5 million to assist residents in safely evacuating. The company will reportedly set up a $1 million fund to monitor and purify the air.
The residents of East Palestine were unhappy about the meeting held as it produced no answers.
Jenna Giannios, an Ohio resident, criticized Norfolk Southern’s response to the situation. “[The town hall meeting] was really hard to hear. The audio wasn’t set up for it, but I don’t think anybody got any answers because Norfolk Southern wasn’t there. I know they were afraid because it was dangerous, but they could have provided a Zoom link for people to join and jump in and ask questions if they were that concerned for their safety. But it appears to residents that they’re just hiding it,” Giannios said.
The mayor of East Palestine told residents that he was also concerned and searching for answers. “We need our citizens to feel safe in their own homes,” he told the crowd. “I need help. I’m not ready for this. But I’m not leaving, I’m not going anywhere.”
Within a day of the controlled ignition of chemicals, residents of the town and surrounding areas reported livestock and farm animals being found dead in their fields. Residents of East Palestine also observed dead fish floating in the creeks and streams in the town. Though told to evacuate when the chemicals were lit on fire, residents were soon told it was safe to come back to their homes, with many reporting the air to smell of chemicals such as chlorine.
A concerning consequence of the derailment was whether the drinking water in East Palestine was safe. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced that the water from the municipal water system was tested and was safe to use. DeWine said the people who received their water from a private well had to continue drinking bottled water. However, residents remain uncertain as there is confusion about the status quo. Videos shown on social media have shown that some rivers in East Palestine are contaminated.
“Physically, I feel safe – yes. Is the tap water concerning? Absolutely. I’m not sure how quickly our tap water would be impacted. But it’s all connected to where those chemicals were spilled. So, there’s definitely some concern and not a lot of transparency. We get a lot of different answers from different people; some say to drink bottled water. Some say the tap water is safe. So, it’s confusing,” Giannios said.
The state of Ohio has informed Norfolk Southern that they might launch legal action against the rail company.