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The Ohio Trainwreck: an Environmental Justice Problem

By Emily De Leon


Photo courtesy of AP News


On February 3rd, 2023, a major trainwreck occurred in the town of East Palestine, Ohio. This trainwreck posed more of a threat than many anticipated. Among many chemicals, the train carried a chemical known as Vinyl Chloride. This chemical is the most concerning as it is highly dangerous and is used to make a variety of plastics products such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) (Peterson, Borenstein, 2023).


This chemical on its own is highly toxic and considered a carcinogen, Vinyl Chloride impacts the liver and in worst cases, causes liver cancer (Peterson, Borenstein, 2023). As part of the solution to clean up the spill, officials decided to conduct a controlled burn. When burned, Vinyl Chloride releases Phosgene and Hydrogen Chloride, both of which are highly toxic to humans and the environment. In fact, Phosgene has historically been used in chemical warfare in World War I (Peterson, Borenstein, 2023).


This environmental justice issue concerns the people that are local to the area. The train was wrecked very close to people’s homes and businesses and posed a health risk to everyone in the immediate vicinity. In order to keep people safe, officials ordered the immediate evacuation of everyone within a 1- mile radius of the crash; this has since been expanded to include nearby neighborhoods in Beaver County, Pennsylvania (CBS, 2023). Since the immediate evacuation, officials have determined as of February 8th it is safe to return to their homes (CBS, 2023). While the EPA has deemed that there are no concerning levels of toxicity in nearby waters, many residents are concerned about their return.


According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, this spill impacted around seven and a half miles of stream and has killed around 3,500 fish (Hauser 2023). There are many questions still lingering in the wake of the wreck as residents return to their homes. While the cleanup efforts continue, questions exist regarding why this happened in the first place, the risks involved with returning to the area, the long-term effects of groundwater and air quality and much more. What makes this complex issue an environmental justice problem is the nature of the contaminants and how dangerous they are.


Returning citizens have many concerns about their wellbeing and are losing trust in their elected officials. For example, law enforcement was highly criticized due to reporters such as Evan Lambert of News Nation being arrested (Hauser 2023). The most important thing to do is to educate as many people as possible and raise awareness around this situation and the people who are affected. This is an ongoing and developing story, and there are still many questions that will need to be addressed with further research. Raising awareness is key, and keeping those who are impacted at the forefront of the conversations that contribute to their everyday lives and wellbeing.


 

References


CBS Interactive. (2023, February 8). East Palestine train derailment: Evacuation order lifted as officials say air and water samples show it's safe. CBS News. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://www.cbsnews.com/pittsburgh/live-updates/east-palestine-ohio-train-derailment-hazardous-materials-ntsb-evacuations/


Hauser, C. (2023, February 13). After the Ohio train derailment: Evacuations, toxic chemicals and water worries. The New York Times. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/article/ohio-train-derailment.html


Peterson, B., & Borenstein, S. (2023, February 8). Residents concerned about toxic gases from Ohio train derailment. PBS. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/residents-concerned-about-toxic-gases-from-ohio-train-derailment


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