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Hazardous Material Transport and the Threat it Poses to our Environment

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

On February 3, 2023, in East Palestine Ohio, a Norfolk Southern train derailed causing 50 freight cars to release deadly hazardous materials into the air and a massive fire. Evacuations forced people in the small community from their homes, due to fears of a deadly explosion from the volatility of the chemicals released from the freight cars. Among the chemicals released was a deadly carcinogen known to cause cancer called vinyl chloride. As the governmental agencies worked to assess the situation, Norfolk Southern performed a controlled burn from the vinyl chloride to prevent a much worse explosion from happening. The resulting burnoff and initial fire produced a toxic cloud of smoke all around the area, and the chemicals have been detected in nearby waterways. While the total environmental impact will not be fully known for some time, accidents like this highlight the need for stronger regulations of dangerous material transport to avoid major environmental disasters.

The aftermath of the disaster has given concern to many of the residents in the area where the derailment occurred. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates around 3,500 fish have been killed in local streams and waterways due to the chemicals entering the water sources. On February 8th, the EPA declared the area safe for residents to return home stating that their data showed air quality was no longer affected from the chemical burn off. Data also showed toxic plumes in waterways around the area, but the EPA maintains the drinking water supply has not been impacted by the plumes. Many residents in the area were reluctant to return home even after assurances the area was safe, and some have reported experiencing health issues such as rashes, headaches, and a burning sensation in the throat.

As attention turns to the cause of the accident, it is important to note that rail operator Norfolk Southern worked with other industry members in helping to eliminate regulations that would upgrade outdated braking systems used in the industry. Reports also show that industry lobbyists were able to successfully limit regulations that would have made trains carrying dangerous chemicals. These regulations would have given trains like the East Palestine train the high hazard classification, which comes with more stringent safety protocols. When measures like these are combined with the rail industry eliminating over 22% of its workforce in recent years, prompting rail unions to warn of increased safety risks in doing so, it creates a recipe for disaster like in East Palestine. The federal government must hold companies like Norfolk Southern accountable for their actions, but also must work to provide clear and safe guidelines regarding chemical transport. Unfortunately, corporate greed and a lack of action at the federal level leave the residents of East Palestine to bear the consequences of inaction. The clock is running on the next disaster, and we must take action to prevent catastrophes like this from happening.



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