On February 3rd, at 8:55 p.m. Eastern Time, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. A total of 38 train cars derailed, 11 of which were carrying dangerous materials that eventually led to a toxic fire that burned for several days.
The hazardous materials that contributed to the severity of this fire were vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate. Among the 11 derailed train cars, five were carrying 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, which is a highly flammable gas and one of the hazardous chemicals that led to the explosion. Vinyl chloride is usually used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, wire coatings, vehicle upholstery, and plastic kitchen utensils.
After the derailment, waterways were contaminated, killing more than 40,000 fish and other aquatic life, but officials have said those contaminants have been contained. In response, Ohio authorities have repeatedly said air quality and municipal water tests in East Palestine show no dangerous levels of chemicals. However, residents have valid concerns about long-term health effects, due to some residents having reported bloody noses, burning throats, nausea, headaches and vomiting since the toxic wreck.
Three weeks after the derailment, the United States and Norfolk Southern have been trying to take the steps to figure out how to handle this situation and ensure the safety of those living in the area.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency has been collecting data on the levels of certain chemicals in the area. This information will help the EPA decide whether or not the area is safe to live in.
As of February 28th, nine of the dozens of chemicals that the EPA has been monitoring are higher than would normally be found in the area. This could pose a threat to the residents’ health in the area if the levels of these chemicals remain high. If the temperature fluctuates too much or strong winds stir up the chemicals they could release into the atmosphere.
The chemical with the highest levels in East Palestine is called acrolein. Acrolein is a clear toxic liquid that is used to control plants and rodents. The chemical can cause inflammation and irritation in the skin, respiratory tract, and mucous membranes. However, Dr. Albert Presto, an associate research professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon’s Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation, says it is not at the point where we need to evacuate.
Dr. Presto was bestowed with the responsibility to assist the university’s chemical monitoring effort in East Palestine. Dr. Presto does not know necessarily “what the long-term risk is or how long that concentration that causes that risk will persist,” which is why the chemical tests must continue.
The EPA has also ordered Norfolk Southern to fully clean up the wreck or face expensive consequences. According to EPA administrator Michael Regan, they need to provide a descriptive work plan on how they plan to clean up the water, soil and debris, reimburse the EPA for providing residents a cleaning service of their homes and businesses, and show up to public meetings and explain their progress. If Norfolk doesn’t follow these requirements the EPA will step in and complete it for them, for a large price tag of 70,000 dollars a day.
As of March 1st, the EPA has tested the air in 578 homes and no contaminants have been detected associated with the derailment. 19 private wells have been tested and no evidence of contaminants was found linked to the train derailment. Public drinking water was also tested and the results “confirm that there is no indication of risk to East Palestine public water system customers,” according to the agency. As for the cleanup, Norfolk Southern has a few more days to present a plan to the EPA and residents of East Palestine.
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