On the night of February 3, a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern carrying hazardous materials derailed and caught fire in East Palestine, Ohio. Nearly 5,000 people live in the rural village, which sits along Ohio’s eastern border with Pennsylvania, about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Three days later, workers conducted a “controlled release” and burn-off of vinyl chloride inside five derailed tanker cars to prevent a possible explosion, which prompted an evacuation order for the surrounding community. The fire sent a massive plume of thick, black, toxic smoke high into the sky. The evacuation order was lifted on February 8, but ever since then, residents have become increasingly unnerved by the official response, accusing the authorities of downplaying the threat to their health. Tempers got so hot that Norfolk Southern on Wednesday said a representative would not attend a town-hall meeting due to safety concerns.
Below are updates on some of the major outstanding questions about the disaster and its aftermath.
What caused the derailment?
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the 141-car train showed signs of trouble at least 20 miles before the derailment. Security-camera footage from two locations in Salem, Ohio, showed a fiery axle below one of the rail cars of the passing train about 45 minutes before the accident. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the derailment but has said that a malfunctioning railcar axle was likely responsible. It said members of the train’s crew had been attempting to stop it shortly before the derailment — after they received an alert “indicating a mechanical issue.” There was a safety device on the track in Salem that monitors the temperature of axles of passing trains, known as a hot-box detector, but the Post-Gazette reports that it’s not yet clear whether the instrument picked up the apparent fire. If it had, it would have alerted both the train crew and the train’s dispatcher and required the crew to immediately stop the train — which typically needs a few miles to safely do so. In other words, if the train had begun stopping then, it theoretically would have come to a halt in a less populated area between Salem and East Palestine.
Why did authorities lift the evacuation order so quickly?
Federal, state, and local officials concluded that it was safe for residents to return following what they said was an extensive analysis of multiple air and water samples. The EPA warned that people might still be able to smell chemical odors many miles away — which they have — but that the odors did not indicate a health risk.
The day the evacuation order was lifted, EPA representative James Justice told CNN that analysts had been continuously monitoring and sampling the air in multiple locations for the preceding 24 hours and that “all of the readings we’ve been recording in the community have been at normal concentrations, normal backgrounds, which you find in almost any community.”
Teams working with the federal and state EPA tried to contain the chemicals and limit their contamination of the local water system, but the Ohio EPA said hazardous materials had entered a nearby stream called Sulfur Run, where the materials “were immediately toxic to fish,” killing them. The state agency said that analysts would continue to test local water systems and ground and well water and remediate any contamination.
Governors Mike DeWine of Ohio and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania said that a contractor hired by Norfolk Southern would provide both free air-sample testing at the homes of affected residents and free water testing for private wells — but authorities encouraged people with private wells to drink bottled water in the meantime. Subsequent testing found that the community’s municipal water supply was safe, according to Ohio officials.
Has Norfolk Southern mishandled the disaster?
On Wednesday, Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro wrote a letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw alleging that the company mismanaged the aftermath of the disaster, sowing confusion and putting first responders and residents at risk while “prioritizing an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line.”
The governor said the company failed to implement proper incident management immediately after the disaster, complained that Pennsylvania authorities learned of the disaster independently, and suggested the company may have misled public officials regarding the controlled release and burn-off of vinyl chloride. Shapiro wrote that Norfolk Southern supplied “inaccurate information and conflicting modeling about the impact of the controlled release that made protective action decision making more difficult in the immediate aftermath of the derailment” and that the company’s “unwillingness to explore or articulate alternate courses of action to their proposed vent and burn limited state and local leaders’ ability to respond effectively.”
Norfolk Southern reopened the two rail lines disabled by the accident one day after the vinyl chloride was released and burned — and one day before the evacuation order was lifted for nearby residents.
Which hazardous materials was the train transporting, and how much of them were released?
According to Norfolk Southern, 20 railcars contained materials classified as hazardous — meaning they were flammable, combustible, or posed an environmental risk — and 11 of those cars derailed. According to a list Norfolk Southern provided the EPA, the hazardous chemicals aboard derailed or damaged cars included vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethyl acrylate, isobutylene, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, and benzene.
It remains unclear just how much hazardous material was released by the derailment and fire.
Vinyl chloride has been of particular concern, as it was the chemical that was purposely released and burned on February 8, sending a plume of toxic smoke over the town. The colorless gas is used to make polyvinyl-chloride (PVC) plastic products, and long-term exposure has been linked to an increased risk of multiple cancers. When burned, it produces the gases phosgene and hydrogen chloride. Phosgene is a heavy, highly toxic gas with a suffocatingly strong odor that is a pulmonary, eye, and throat irritant and can cause vomiting. It was used as a chemical weapon to kill 85,000 people in World War I. Hydrogen chloride can irritate the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and larynx.