top of page

The Derailment of Norfolk Southern: Chemical Plume Madison Woodward

Toxic, ominous plumes of blackened smoke drifted in the air following the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train along the outskirts of East Palestine, Ohio. The disaster occurred shortly before 9 p.m. on the third of February, leaving the village of approximately 4,700 people to deal with uncertainty and fear. Out of the total of the 150 train cars, 38 derailed and set ablaze, leading to subsequent damages to another 12. 11 of the wrecked railcars were carrying hazardous materials and chemicals, such as vinyl chloride and combustible liquids. Fortunately, there were no fatalities or injuries. However, the phrase, “toxins remain innocent until proven guilty,” rings true in this scenario. Only time will tell.

The derailment evoked environmental and health concerns, prompting chemical fears to rise throughout the rural community. These panics stemmed from the continuous flames emitting from the train, leaving residents to anxiously wait for a response. Firefighters and other first responders were prohibited from putting out the fire because of the risks of contamination.

Those anxieties worsened when responders had announced threats of an explosion due to drastic changes in temperatures in one of the tanker cars on February 5th. Consequently, Ohio governor, Mike Dewine, declared an evacuation for those living within a 1-mile radius of the crash. 1,500 locals were forced to evacuate. The fires continued to smolder that Monday morning. Experts conducted a “controlled release” of the chemicals in order to avoid any dangerous bursts, hence the odd fume lingering in the air.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began conducting multiple air pollution and water runoff tests. They were able to detect contamination in two nearby streams—Sulphur Run and Leslie Run. The governmental group continued to monitor the levels of pollutants, and after a couple of days, the governor finally announced it was safe for residents to return to their homes.

Air and water tests began to display safe levels, but the damage had already been done. Kayla Miller, a resident near the incident, told reporters that her chickens “...were perfectly healthy before all this happened, and within 24 hours, they all dropped.” Miller then took a stroll down to the Leslie Run creek where viewers could see “...literally hundreds of dead fish…” The Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported that approximately 3,500 fish were dead throughout the waterways. If any nearby predator was to ingest these dead fish, they would become accumulated with an increased concentration of toxins; this is a process known as biomagnification. The dead fish may not appear as harmful, but in reality, they pose a threat to the food chain and ecosystem they are in.

Another Ohian, Allison See, expressed anxiety over the long-term effects— “...This is my home. I’ve lived here my entire life… am I going to be okay in 10, 15 years?” Her concern is valid; a scientist at Cornell University stated, “It is unclear how much of this volatile chemical escaped into the air or burned before entering surface waters and soil, but vinyl chloride is highly mobile in soils and water and can persist for years in groundwater.” Vinyl chloride is a carcinogen, and exposure to this can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms, such as dizziness, nausea, and headache.

Many have questioned how authority handled the situation, including the federal government’s oversight of the hazardous shipments. Nonetheless, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is undergoing a safety investigation to determine the cause of the derailment. The NTSB stated that the train was delivering a variety of goods, ranging from frozen produce to cement and sheet steel, as well as malt liquor and other substances. The train originally departed from Madison, Illinois, marking the start of its trek to Conway, Pennsylvania. The three crew members aboard the train were all aware of the mechanical defect, and as a result, activated an emergency brake. The board discovered a surveillance video that displayed one of the railcar wheel bearings overheating moments before the derailment. The specific set of railcar’s wheels are currently being examined by engineers from the NTSB. Hopefully with their findings, future accidents will be prevented.

The EPA has continued to monitor water and soil safety levels, and have screened for air quality inside homes due to request; more than 400 homes were reported as safe. Clean up efforts have allowed removal of 4,600 cubic yards of soil and 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water. The EPA announced early last week that Norfolk Southern will be held responsible for the damage and the reimbursement of the EPA. The EPA Administrator Michael Regan declared that the rail company will have to pay for all cleanup, including “...the trauma they’ve inflicted on this community"


1. Dance, Scott, et al. “After toxic train derailment, Ohio residents report rashes and worries.” The Washington Post, 16 February 2023,

2. Fitzpatrick, Sarah. “EPA orders Norfolk Southern to clean up Ohio train derailment, pay costs.” NBC News, 21 February 2023,

3. Hernandez, Joe. “EPA takes control of Ohio train derailment cleanup.” NPR, 21 February 2023,

4. Maher, Kris. “Ohio Officials Warn of Danger of Explosion After Train Derailment.” MSN, 6 February 2023, li=BBnb7Kz.

5. McDaniel, Justine. “What's known about the toxic plume from the Ohio train derailment.” The Washington Post, 15 February 2023,

6. National Transportation Safety Board. “NTSB Issues Investigative Update on Ohio Train Derailment.” NTSB, 14 February 2023,


bottom of page