At about 8:55 p.m. on Friday night, February 3, 38 freight cars on a train belonging to the Norfolk Southern railroad derailed and tumbled off the main track in East Palestine, Ohio, just west of the Pennsylvania state line. It unleashed a serious potential threat to the safety of the nearby environment, including the Ohio River, which is just 20 miles south of the site of the derailment.
A total of 11 out of the 38 derailed cars contained extremely hazardous materials. They included flammable vinyl chloride, combustible liquid ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, combustible liquid ethylhexyl acrylate, a flammable gas called isobutylene, a flammable liquid called butyl acrylates, as well as two cars listed as empty but which had most recently contained benzene.
A number of other cars that were not derailed ended up being damaged or had permitted their dangerous contents to leak out. They included two tank cars containing petroleum lube oil which lost their entire load and a tank car containing propylene glycol which lost most of its load.
The leaked hazardous material which escaped from the cars, as well as all five cars containing vinyl chloride which were later deliberately burned up on orders from the railroad, the governor and the mayor, created a monumental impact on the nearby environment which terrorized the 4,761 inhabitants of East Palestine as well as the 18,161 residents of the city of Steubenville (46 miles to the south of the accident site) which detected butyl acrylate in the municipal water intake on the Ohio River 11 days after the accident. The Ohio River is the source of drinking water for more than 5 million people in several adjacent states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky.
TENSIONS AND FEARS IN THE REGION RUNNING HIGH
As a result, tensions and fear of environmental contamination have been running high among the residents of the entire region since the accident took place. However, the seriousness of the incident was initially covered-up or largely ignored by railroad, state, and federal officials, including President Biden’s Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who is ultimately responsible for maintaining the safety of the national railroad system.
So far there have been no reports in the area of any deaths attributed to the release of toxic materials. Tiffani Kavalec, the official in charge of surface water safety for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said that the plume of leaked chemicals from the train flowing down the Ohio River is being diluted as it moves and is not expected to taint any drinking water taken from the river in downstream communities. But pictures and videos on social media show livestock and wildlife dying in large numbers, in addition to reports of about 3,500 dead fish floating in nearby small creeks and streams which are still partially covered with a chemical-like sheen.
Meanwhile, cleanup crews using cranes and other heavy machinery are excavating a “grossly contaminated” 1,000-foot area around the train tracks where chemicals from the train, such as butyl acrylate puddled and vinyl chloride was burned. Others were hauling sheets of metal by hand, moving other train wreckage into dumpsters, and pausing whenever a train came through.
THE EVOLUTION OF A FORMER FACTORY TOWN
East Palestine had once been known as a factory town. After the local pottery and tire makers closed, it became a bedroom community for workers at nearby steel mills and an automotive plant. More recently, it has become a quiet haven for families offering good schools and a reasonable commute to and from Pittsburgh. Now its residents are worried that the derailment will destroy East Palestine’s good community reputation. They fear that it will become known as a “toxic town,” like Love Canal, a community that became notorious after it became known that it was built on a toxic waste site near Niagara Falls, NY.
In the weeks since the derailment, some have suggested that it was ultimately the result of cost-cutting by the railroad in maintaining the safe operation of its rail cars. As reported by The Hill, “railroad union leaders were quick to connect [the accident] to an issue they’ve warned about for years: that railroad layoffs and reliance on clockwork, inflexible scheduling were running them ragged and leading to disaster . . . The question of scheduling is a particularly divisive one. Last year, Congress voted to force union workers to accept a deal [brokered by the Biden White House] with railroad companies that gave them virtually no ability to take unscheduled sick time — and then narrowly voted down a plan that would have forced the companies to give sick time anyway.”
Labor leaders have warned that the industry’s adoption of a service model known as “precision scheduled railroading,” which seeks to reduce operating costs by using fewer staff and longer trains, could put safety at risk.
OVERHEATED TRAIN WHEEL BEARING THE SUSPECTED CAUSE
Two surveillance videos obtained by CNN showed sparks flying from an overheated wheel bearing as the train, which derailed when that wheel bearing failed 43 minutes later in East Palestine, passed through Salem Ohio. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the train car that initiated the accident has been identified, and the bad wheel bearing has been recovered from the accident scene and is currently undergoing a metallurgical examination at the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, D.C. So far, there is no sign of sabotage, to the disappointment of many conspiracy theorists who have speculated online about the cause of the accident.
While the NTSB is probably a year away from issuing its report on the accident and related safety recommendations, the federal government itself is facing angry questions over its slow response to the derailment and its ineffective previous oversight of the railroad industry.
Transportation Secretary Buttigieg in particular has drawn severe condemnation for waiting nearly 10 days before issuing any public comment on the derailment and the subsequent environmental disaster. He issued a tweet saying, “I continue to be concerned about the impacts of the Feb 3 train derailment near East Palestine, OH, and the effects on families in the ten days since their lives were upended through no fault of their own.”
But he made no mention of the rail accident in his interviews on Sunday news talk shows just two days after the crash, while some of the derailed train cars continued to burn. The Transportation Secretary has also yet to personally visit the site of the accident.
OFFICIALS OFFER SKEPTICAL RESIDENTS REASSURANCES
Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern railroad officials, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, and Michael Regan, administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, have all sent the residents of East Palestine and nearby communities the same message: “All families need to know that they are safe.”
At a press conference last week in East Palestine, the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Regan as well as other state and federal officials tried to reassure residents that they would have access to more aid and health monitoring and that the railroad would be held responsible for the accident. “All families deserve access to clean air and safe drinking water,” Regan emphasized.
“The community has questions. I want the community to know that we hear you, we see you, and that we will get to the bottom of this. . . We are absolutely going to hold Norfolk Southern accountable. I promise you that.” the EPA administrator added. “We are testing for all volatile organic chemicals. We’re testing for everything that was on that train. So, we feel comfortable that we are casting a net wide enough to present a picture that will protect the community.”
In response to a question about whether he would return if he had a home in East Palestine, Regan said, “If the EPA said that my air quality is safe and if the state said that the water has been tested and the water quality safe, then I would trust those readings.”
But that reassurance was of little comfort to East Palestine resident Jami Cozza. She evacuated her home immediately after the derailment, but after a few days, she was told by officials that it was safe for her to return. However, she found that a chemical odor still lingers in her apartment. After insisting that one of the railroad officials pay her home a visit, the company offered to pay for her relocation over safety fears.
“Had I not used my voice, had I not thrown a fit, I would be sitting in that house right now, when they told me that it was safe,” Cozza later told CNN.
Dave Anderson, a farmer in nearby New Galilee, Pennsylvania, is one of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Norfolk Southern. He is also skeptical about the assurances from the federal EPA administrator. “I’m going to East Palestine and will get a glass of water, and I’m going to ask him to drink it because I don’t believe it,” Anderson said.
In the wake of the news about the derailment, East Palestine has been flooded by personal injury lawyers seeking out impacted local clients to sue the railroad.
IS THE LOCAL WATER SAFE?
The residents of East Palestine seem most concerned over the safety of their drinking water. Local officials have told them that it was safe, but also advised them to drink only bottled water as a precaution. But soon, some of the residents began to complain of developing rashes on their bodies after showering with the municipal water.
Initially, they were told that the only chemicals they needed to be afraid of were from the five cars of vinyl chloride that were deliberately burned up two days after the accident, to prevent an explosion. Exposure to vinyl chloride, which is used in the manufacture of plastics, can cause a variety of symptoms, and in cases of high exposure, a rare form of liver cancer.
Burning the vinyl chloride created a mixture of phosgene gas, which was used on the Western Front in World War I in poison gas attacks, and hydrogen chloride, which immediately turns into corrosive hydrochloric acid upon contact with water vapor. But the good news was that both chemicals created by the burn break down quickly and become relatively harmless upon contact with large amounts of liquid water.
The day after officials told East Palestine residents that it was safe to return to their homes, four more dangerous chemicals were added to the list, which is still growing, day by day. Federal and state environmental officials also said that dangerous chemicals from the train wreck had entered five creeks and the Ohio River, and had been observed entering some storm drains. In addition, a number of East Palestine residents reported headaches, respiratory problems, and dizziness in the days after the wreck.
The Ohio EPA said the East Palestine municipal drinking water is safe, but the state Department of Health has recommended that people with private wells drink bottled water until they receive test results confirming their well’s safety.
CONTRADICTORY OFFICIAL STATEMENTS RAISE MORE QUESTIONS
According to Coza, each day seems to bring new contradictions from the information being released by officials, raising more questions than they answer. The resulting uncertainty is only generating a deeper sense of distrust among local residents.
Other residents who had evacuated their homes were given clearance by local officials to return five days after the accident, but many are still afraid to do so. In the immediate vicinity of the train wreck, which has still not been removed from the side of the railroad tracks, and in pockets throughout East Palestine, a potent chemical odor, that residents have described as similar to turpentine or bleach and that “sticks to your nose,” still hangs in the air. Breathing it in for a few minutes also leaves a metallic taste in their mouths “like pennies.”
Cozza said that the railroad had changed its mind and offered to pay for her relocation because her front door is just a few steps from a contaminated creek whose water will likely leak into the basement of her home where she is raising a three-year-old child. But standing outside her home, she pointed toward the home of her neighbors, who are also living within about 50 feet of the contaminated creek. They have not received the same offer from the railroad.
“Their kids deserve to live, just like mine do,” Cozza angrily told a reporter for the British newspaper, The Guardian.
Other residents have reported finding dead pets when they returned home. Many of the local birds or outdoor cats that they usually feed have now disappeared. To deal with the chemicals still found throughout the local waterways, temporary dams have been set up with industrial pumps to filter out the contaminants, but how long that process will take is hard to predict.
“People are just angry but they don’t know who to be angry with because we’re not getting enough information to know who to be mad at,” Cozza told the reporter. “‘The air is fine, but don’t go outside. Your water is fine, but drink bottled water.’ You can’t trust them.”
FRIGHTENED RESIDENTS WANT TO LEAVE
Another resident of East Palestine, Candice Desanzo, told the Guardian that, like many of her neighbors, she wants to leave town, but her family does not have enough money to move elsewhere. Meanwhile, she fears for the health of her children and husband who have developed rashes after bathing in the municipal water. She also said that one of her children had become hoarse a few days after the train wreck. As she discussed her family’s plight on the front porch of her home, the reporter noticed that her eyes were red and swollen. “I can’t help but feel like I’m slowly poisoning my kids by staying,” she said.
Desanzo, who lives about a half mile from the train wreck, wonders why the railroad is not paying for her to relocate, or to cover more of her accident-related costs. She also wonders about her home’s safety. She has received contradictory information from officials about how to safely clean her home and fears that she may have contaminated her family’s clothes by washing them with municipal water.
“We just need answers,” she said in tears. “This city deserves answers and compensation.”
Some local residents have also lost their faith in their family doctors who have told them that their post-train wreck rashes, nausea, and headaches actually stem from routine conditions such as colds, the flu, eczema or sinus infections that are treatable with antibiotics, instead of poisonous chemical exposure.
Anderson, the Pennsylvania farmer, told the Washington Post that he and his family experienced a burning sensation in the mouth, lips, and tongue starting the day after the derailment, as well as tongue swelling, a runny nose, and watery eyes, and that some of those symptoms, while diminished, have not yet completely gone away.
Children who returned to their classrooms last week found a strong chemical smell in the East Palestine public high school hallways, despite the fact that the school’s custodians had thoroughly cleaned every reachable surface.
“When I smell that chemical smell it takes me back to when all this happened, and I panic and get anxiety from it,” said Jami Cozza’s niece, Jenna Cozza.
THE TRAIN WRECK IN HER BACKYARD
Shelby Walker said she and her family were at home on the evening of February 3 when the 38 cars of the 141-car train came off the nearby tracks and caught fire sending orange flames and black smoke into the sky. Last week, she watched as a machine with a scissor-like attachment shredded a scorched railcar that had fallen near the bicycles, trampoline, and plastic play toys belonging to her children in her backyard. She said she plans to take apart the toys that could be contaminated before throwing them out so that another family doesn’t endanger themselves by taking them.
Walker said that since she returned home with her children and grandchildren this past week, few of them are sleeping through the night. She said the chemical smell gets worse in the evening, and is stronger now than it was right after the derailment. She also said that it sometimes wakes her up in the middle of the night.
Over the clanging of steel being torn apart by railroad workers dressed in yellow safety vests turning charred railcars into scrap metal and scooping up contaminated soil, Walker told a reporter for the Wall Street Journal that they are still haunted by their memory of the accident.
Walker, who works as a supervisor at a local hotel, also said that she is worried about the lingering contamination, distrustful of railroad and government officials, and frustrated by what she described as a lack of clarity about what the continued risks to her and her family are.
LOCAL RESIDENTS STILL LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
“I want to know what we’re being exposed to,” she said. “People are looking for answers on how to deal with the situation we’re in.”
In another part of East Palestine, contractors pumped contaminated material out of a creek near a deserted park and playground.
Jerry Corbin, age 73, a retired heavy equipment operator, has been collecting gray flakes of ash which he said started appearing in the backyard of his home in Darlington, Pennsylvania, near the Ohio border, soon after the railroad set fire to the five carloads of vinyl chloride.
Corbin told the Wall Street Journal that he has started experiencing headaches for the first time in his life and difficulty breathing since returning to his home. Corbin is a lung cancer survivor who had one of his lungs surgically removed in 1995. He worries that the flakes he is still finding in his backyard are responsible, and may also contaminate the vegetables in his garden.
He also said, “When I heard the train whistle coming, it used to be a romantic sound. Now, it sends shivers up my spine.”
DOUBTS ABOUT THE SAFETY TESTING
Some East Palestine residents are also worried about the safety of the air that they are breathing. The EPA’s website states that the agency has tested the air in 525 local homes and found it safe. But the residents know that the testing was actually done by contractors hired by the Norfolk Southern railroad, so they don’t trust the results.
The EPA has also said that it had sampled the municipal water in East Palestine and had found it to be uncontaminated, and it had also tested 48 wells, mostly in Ohio, and found them to be safe as well.
But one of the problems with the testing for these potent man-made chemicals released by the train wreck is that scientists don’t really know what level of exposure to them is safe over the long term. They also don’t know what the consequences are when people are exposed to a combination of these chemicals, like vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate.
Ohio Republican Governor DeWine, speaking at a news conference last week, vouched for the accuracy of the testing conducted so far, but acknowledged that there was “nothing wrong with healthy skepticism.” Still, he added, “We believe the testing is accurate.”
The governor also promised that the state would continue to test the air and water in East Palestine until the health experts had determined that the danger had passed.
DeWine told reporters that Norfolk Southern had committed to paying “for everything” and said the state would hold the rail company responsible.
“The impact on this community is huge. Not just the physical problem that might be caused, but the inconvenience, the terror,” DeWine said. “I understand people’s skepticism and I understand their anger, and if I lived in the community, I would be angry, too.”
GOVERNOR DEWINE WARNS THERE WILL BE NO QUICK FIX
DeWine also admitted that a section of a creek near the crash site remains severely contaminated. “We know this,” he said. “It’s going to take a while to remediate. It’s certainly a place to be avoided at this point.”
But the governor also noted that shortly after the crash, the contaminated portion of the creek was dammed to prevent the poisonous chemicals from flowing downstream.
DeWine explained that because the train was not technically categorized, under current federal regulations, as a high-hazardous material train, Norfolk Southern was not required by law to give the state any notification about its passage. DeWine therefore called upon Congress to reexamine those regulations and apply them to all trains carrying toxic substances.
Also, at DeWine’s request, the federal Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are setting up a clinic for residents in the area with medical concerns.
“This request for medical experts includes, but is not limited to, physicians and behavioral health specialists,” DeWine wrote in a letter to the CDC. “Some community members have already seen physicians in the area but remain concerned about their condition and possible health effects — both short- and long-term.”
BIDEN ADMINISTRATION FLIP-FLOPS ON FEMA AID
According to DeWine, the Biden administration initially ruled last week that East Palestine was not eligible to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) emergency aid, because “although FEMA is synonymous with disaster support, they’re most typically involved with disasters where there is tremendous home or property damage” such as hurricanes or tornadoes. But the Biden administration quickly changed its mind shortly after former president Donald Trump paid a visit to the town to show his solidarity with its residents.
That led to a joint statement by Governor DeWine and FEMA Regional Administration Thomas Sivak last Friday evening declaring that “FEMA and the state of Ohio have been in constant contact regarding emergency operations in East Palestine. U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA have been working together since day one.”
Meanwhile, both of Ohio’s U.S. senators, Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, sent a joint letter asking the state and national EPAs to test the air in East Palestine for dioxins and other toxic pollutants that could have formed from the railroad’s deliberate burning of the train’s cargo of vinyl chloride.
TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY BUTTIGIEG UNDER FIRE
In a separate incident, Senator Vance criticized a tweet put out by Transportation Secretary Buttigieg noting that the Trump administration had rejected two new railroad safety rules that had been proposed during the Obama administration, seeming to imply that Trump bore some of the responsibility for the derailing. Vance responded to Buttigieg by saying in front of reporters that, “The Department of Transportation — your Department of Transportation — has things it can do. Stop blaming Donald Trump, a guy who hasn’t been president for three years, and use the powers of the federal government to do the things necessary to help people in this community.”
Buttigieg was also involved in a political oddity that emerged from the derailment, a rare public agreement between Republican conservative Texas Senator Ted Cruz and progressive Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar on the need to investigate the long-term health effects of the derailment and a call for “direct action from Pete Buttigieg to address this tragedy.”
Buttigieg was once considered to be a rising star in the national Democrat party. He was a candidate for its 2020 presidential nomination and is now one of its leading potential 2024 presidential candidates if Biden decides in the end not to run for re-election. However, Buttigieg has performed poorly in his current role as Biden’s Transportation Secretary. The train derailment in East Palestine took place just weeks after the failure of an FAA aviation safety system that led to the first nationwide ground stop since the 9/11 attacks, and not long before that a meltdown at Southwest Airlines ruined the vacation plans of hundreds of thousands of holiday travelers. He was also widely criticized for taking extended parental leave from his post as Transportation Secretary in 2021 during a nationwide shipping crisis and trucking shortage due to a nationwide truck driver shortage and supply chain disruptions caused by the Covid pandemic.
The widespread bipartisan criticism of Buttigieg’s performance in response to the East Palestine derailment prompted the White House to issue a separate statement last week emphasizing that President Biden still has “absolute confidence” in his Transportation Secretary, which, ironically, is yet another sign that Buttigieg really is in deep political trouble.
MAKING THE RAILROAD PAY
Senator Brown paid a visit to East Palestine last week, and said in an interview Sunday that he would “make sure Norfolk Southern does what it says it’s going to do, what it’s promised. . . to make everyone whole” who was impacted by the train wreck.
“Whatever [area residents] need, everything that’s happened here — all the cleanup, all the drilling, all the testing, all the hotel stays, all of that is on Norfolk Southern. They caused it, there’s no question they caused it,” Brown said, adding the total cost could amount to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
Meanwhile this past Sunday, sixteen days after the train derailment, Buttigieg finally sent a letter to Norfolk Southern’s chief executive, Alan Shaw, declaring that he would ask Congress to raise the cap on federal fines for railroad safety breaches from the current maximum of $225,455 and that his department would also propose “in coming days” other measures to improve railroad safety.
The letter also noted that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was conducting its own analysis of the derailment and will use its authority to impose fines to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for any safety violations.
Buttigieg also repeated one of the favorite anti-business talking points of the Biden administration by warning that, “Norfolk Southern and your industry must demonstrate that you will not seek to supercharge profits by resisting higher standards that could benefit the safety of workers and the safety of American communities.”
The letter also called on the company to adopt “a posture that focuses on supporting, not thwarting, efforts to raise the standard of U.S. rail safety regulation.”
CONTROVERSY OVER PROPOSED NEW TRAIN SAFETY REGULATIONS
That was a reference to the fact that during the Obama administration, federal regulators passed new rules on train braking systems and proposed new standards for the minimum size of train crews. The safety proposals were a response to the 2013 explosion of an oil train in Canada that killed 47 people.
The brake proposal would have required the installation of new electronic braking technology on all trains carrying large volumes of hazardous flammable liquids. It would ensure that all rail cars brake at the same time, rather than running into each other and creating the telltale “accordion effect” seen in aerial images of major derailments.
Ironically, in 2007, Norfolk Southern boasted about running the nation’s first train fitted exclusively with the new braking technology, saying it could reduce stopping distances by 60 percent, but Norfolk Southern later decided against installing the new brakes on all of its trains because it had failed a cost-benefit analysis. As a result, according to Sarah Feinberg, who headed the FRA during the Obama administration, the braking system that was in place on the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in East Palestine was based upon Civil War-era braking technology.
The rail industry then lobbied strongly against both measures and was successful in getting the braking standards repealed and the crew size proposal dropped during the Trump administration. The Biden administration has sought to restore the crew size proposal, which would require two employees on each train, but said that there are now other obstacles to reviving the new braking rule that Obama’s regulators had proposed.
The spilling of such dangerous chemicals in the February 3 derailment also highlighted the fact that the federal Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has been without an administrator since Biden took office in January 2021. It is currently run by deputy administrator Tristan Brown who has yet to pay a visit to inspect the derailment site in East Palestine, and neither has the administrator of the FRA, Amit Bose.
DELAYED BIDEN WHITE HOUSE RESPONSE CALLED UNACCEPTABLE
The tardy response to the derailment of all of these Biden administration transportation, environmental and safety officials was publicly condemned last week by West Virginia’s Democrat Senator Joe Manchin, who said that “it is unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up,” referring to last week’s visit by EPA administrator Michael Regan.
Manchin also urged the White House to “provide a complete picture of the damage and a comprehensive plan to ensure the community is supported in the weeks, months and years to come, and this sort of accident never happens again.”
The White House responded by saying that its senior officials stayed away from the accident scene to avoid creating a distraction that might interfere with the work of the emergency responders, and that other, lower-level federal officials in these agencies did arrive on-site within a few hours of the derailment.
Biden White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that multiple federal agencies are “working to get to the bottom of what caused the derailment.[They are testing the] air quality, collecting soil samples, and testing surface and groundwater for any contaminants.”
The White House also issued a statement late last week saying, “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting the people of East Palestine every step of the way, and holding Norfolk Southern accountable.”
WHAT ELSE ARE THEY HIDING?
Ron Arter noted that some roads in East Palestine have remained closed since the train wreck, and said, “It makes you wonder what else they are hiding.” Arter and his wife have left their home and are still staying at a hotel with his wife and two dogs because he doesn’t trust air-monitor readings conducted by a contractor hired by Norfolk Southern.
But an EPA spokesman said the agency’s own contractors have been accompanying the contractors hired by Norfolk Southern “and are screening the indoor air with their own hand-held monitors.”
The railroad claimed last week that it had already spent more than $1.5 million on assistance to more than 1,000 local families, including a direct payment of $1,000 to each household. It has also set up a separate $1 million community fund, and has been handing out unlimited amounts of bottled water to local residents. But railroad officials refused to participate in a town hall meeting held last week in the local high school gym to discuss the post-train wreck situation, citing alleged threats that the company had received, further damaging their credibility.
As a result, local resident Chris Wallace told the Guardian, “At this point nobody trusts them, so we don’t want to hear what they say is going on in our homes … they’re going to tell us whatever. . . they want.”
A CONTROVERSIAL POST-DERAILMENT CHEMICAL BURN
East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway did answer during the town hall one of the questions which arose following the derailment, namely, the decision to drain the rail cars carrying vinyl chloride and destroy the chemical in a controlled burn on February 6, in order to avoid the greater danger of an uncontrolled spontaneous explosion.
“There [were only] two options,” the mayor said. “We either detonate those tanks, or they detonate themselves. If we didn’t do that, then the [rail cars containing the vinyl chloride] were going to blow up, and we were going to have shrapnel all across this town.”
A spokesman for Governor Dewine told the Washington Post that he also defended the decision to burn the vinyl chloride, after consulting with the town’s fire chief, to avoid the risk of a catastrophic explosion.
The safe burning of the vinyl chloride reportedly became an urgent safety matter after Norfolk Southern reported a sudden and rapid rise in temperature in one of the tanker cars carrying the explosive chemical. Mayor Conaway later told the Washington Post that there was no time to weigh other options because the temperature inside the vinyl chloride tank car had risen to just 15 degrees below the self-detonation level.
However, Pennsylvania’s Democrat Governor Josh Shapiro has cast doubt on the decision, writing in a letter last week to the railroads CEO Shaw, that “Norfolk Southern failed to explore all potential courses of action, including some that may have kept the rail line closed longer but could have resulted in a safer overall approach for first responders, residents, and the environment.”
Some of the railroads’ critics have also suggested that it favored the controlled vinyl chloride burn-off option primarily because that was the fastest way to clear the tracks and get that railroad line back into operation.
Shapiro’s letter also accused Norfolk Southern of giving “inaccurate information and conflicting modeling about the impact of the controlled release,” failing to inform state and local authorities about the number of rail cars that contained dangerous chemicals, and failing to notify state and local agencies responding to the scene about its decision to vent and burn all five cars containing vinyl chloride instead of just one. However, the Shapiro letter overlooks the fact that both the federal and Ohio state EPA officials had also approved the decision to burn all of the vinyl chloride.
ANGRY RESIDENTS SHOUT OUT AT A TOWN HALL MEETING
Meanwhile, the hundreds of local residents who attended the town hall meeting hoping to get answers to their other questions were only able to voice their frustrations and raise more concerns about the health risks they are still facing. “Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or in the water,” one woman yelled during the meeting.
Another local resident shouted out “Where’s Pete Buttigieg?” to which Mayor Conaway responded, “I don’t know. Your guess is as good as [mine].”
Residents also said that the railroad’s $1,000 cash payments won’t begin to cover their ultimate costs due to the train wreck. Jackie Johnson told the Guardian reporter that she and her husband had just retired from their jobs at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and that they were planning to sell their home in East Palestine so that they could move closer to their child and grandchild who are living in Columbus, Ohio. But now they fear that because of the fear of contamination from their train wreck, nobody will want to buy their current home.
She is not the only local property owner with that concern. Aaron Bragg, who works as a risk engineering specialist in the chemical industry, and lives in nearby New Waterford, Ohio, also owns a rental property in East Palestine, near the site of the derailment. “Am I going to be able to sell that?” he asked a Washington Post reporter while pointing to his small cottage on East Clark Street. “No,” Bragg continued. “Norfolk Southern needs to just level this whole area.”
RAILROAD EXECUTIVE PROMISES TO “DO THE RIGHT THING”
Last week, lawmakers from Ohio and Pennsylvania sent a letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Shaw, asking for more details on how they will determine financial compensation for the towns, residents, and businesses impacted by the train wreck as well as more information on how it manages staffing and safety inspections for its trains.
Shaw responded with an open letter that said, on behalf of the railroad, “We are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive. Our work is underway. Crews are cleaning the site thoroughly, responsibly, and safely.”
Shaw had previously said, “We are working closely with Ohio environmental and health agencies on the long-term plan to protect the environment and the community.” He also noted that local officials “are frustrated by the amount of misinformation circulating about their community and are eager to show that the air and water are safe.”
Over the weekend, Shaw paid a personal visit to East Palestine to inspect the railroad’s ongoing cleanup work and to visit with some of the residents whose lives the derailment had impacted. He later said, “In every conversation today, I shared how deeply sorry I am this happened to their home.” He also declared, “We are going to do the right things to help East Palestine recover and thrive again.”
Nevertheless, the catastrophic derailment has put Norfolk Southern, the nation’s fourth-largest railroad, very much on the defensive, as it becomes the main target of a slew of investigations into the extent of its culpability for the accident.
EXAMINING THE RAILROAD’S SAFETY RECORD
One of the most likely witnesses will be Christopher Hand, the director of research at the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, which represents about 10,000 workers, including more than 800 employees of Norfolk Southern. He has previously pointed out the risks from job cuts in key railroad safety positions, including track maintenance crews, in recent years. Three years ago he publicized the fact that Norfolk Southern cut eliminated five positions in the East Palestine area that oversaw maintenance of detectors that automatically issue an alert to railroad supervisors if something is wrong in the track, including hot boxes that can spot overheated wheel bearings, which the NTSB currently believes is the most likely cause of the East Palestine derailment.
Ironically, before the derailment, Norfolk Southern’s corporate leadership had been touting the recent improvement in the railroad’s safety record, including a 22 percent decline in reported injuries last year.
Norfolk Southern executive vice president and chief operating officer Paul Duncan recently told investment analysts that, “Operating safely is the right thing for our employees, customers, shareholders, and the communities that we serve. This is an area where we have made great strides, but even one serious incident is too many.”
However, FRA records show that at least 20 Norfolk Southern trains that have derailed since 2015 involved some level of chemical releases; but none on a scale anywhere near that of the East Palestine derailment.
Brian Festa, 28, who works as a kiln hand at a business called Advanced Ceramics, located just yards from the derailment, said he has received about $2,000 from Norfolk Southern, and a $1,000 “inconvenience fee.” Festa said he watched the initial fire from the train wreck for about 40 minutes from a second-story window. Since then he said he has suffered a slightly sore throat from a chemical smell that he described as a mixture of “paint thinner, Sharpie, and banana [flavored] Laffy Taffy.”
IMPACT ON THE LOCAL ECONOMY
The train wreck has also had a devastating impact on the small businesses in East Palestine.
After being closed for nearly a week, Duane Doyle decided to reopen his fresh meat and deli store because the evacuation order had been lifted and the EPA said that the air monitoring had shown reasons for concern. Immediately after that, he said, “I spent most of the weekend trying to calm people down. Everyone is concerned, and they have a right to be.”
Maggie Guglielmo, who owns Wristbands America, a few storefronts away from Doyle’s market, told the Wall Street Journal that she wouldn’t reopen her business until she receives the results from a company that she paid $900 to conduct air tests inside her offices. A prior air test report conducted inside her business by a Norfolk Southern contractor found a: “Strong odor (super glue/pool/fruity-like odor). Unpleasant, overwhelming odor.” It also noted that “the air monitoring team left within 10 minutes, due to the unpleasant/overwhelming odor.” The smell is coming from the contaminated water in a creek called Sulphur Run, which runs a few feet from the door to her store.
PRAY FOR EAST PALESTINE’S FUTURE
Flay Stewart is a former town firefighter and council member. He said that he is committed to staying in his lifelong home because he knows East Palestine as a place where neighbors look out for each other. But he also said that his next-door neighbors fled to West Virginia after the derailment and have since told him that they aren’t coming back.
Stewart also admitted that he is worried about what will happen the next time a heavy rain falls on East Palestine, and what spilled toxins from the derailed train it will bring to the surface. He also lamented that the derailment will hurt the long-depressed town economy just when “we were starting to make a comeback.”
In response to the derailment, shops that are still open in downtown East Palestine have hung signs saying “Please Pray for East Palestine and Our Future.”