The effects on the environment and the local population after a flaming train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio are still being assessed.

Following the derailment of 50 train carriages, 10 of which were carrying hazardous materials, in East Palestine on February 3rd, officials permitted locals to return home last week. Hundreds of residents had to be evacuated as a result of the controlled release of poisonous gasses that was carried out on February 6th to stop an explosion.

East Palestine, Ohio, is about 21 miles south of Youngstown, Ohio, and about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with roughly 5,000 residents. It belongs to Columbiana County.

The freight cars derailed on fire in East Palestine on February 3rd as a result of a technical problem with a rail car axle, according to federal authorities. There was vinyl chloride in five of the vehicles.

According to railroad operator Norfolk Southern and the National Transportation Safety Board, the train was transporting a variety of goods from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania.

In a letter to Norfolk Southern on Friday, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  stated that the rail carriages included vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, and isobutylene.

Polyvinyl chloride, the hard plastic compound found in plastic goods such as credit cards, auto parts, PVC pipe, and other items, comes from vinyl chloride, a colorless gas.

The air around industries that make vinyl chloride frequently has the highest concentrations of the gas, and employees at these factories may be exposed to it. According to the National Cancer Institute, vinyl chloride can enter residential air when using water and the general public can inhale it if they are using a contaminated water supply.

Exposure to vinyl chloride may cause an elevated risk of lung, brain, and a rare type of liver cancer. When burned it releases hydrogen chloride and the poisonous gas phosgene, which Germans used as a weapon in World War I.

Five train carriages were at risk of exploding due to the unstable vinyl chloride composition, which could have sent fatal shards into the air. Around 3:30 pm on February 6, Norfolk Southern Railroad carried out a controlled discharge of the vinyl chloride to avert an explosion.

On February 6, the Associated Press reported:

Scott Deutsch of Norfolk Southern Railway earlier said doing this during the daytime would allow the fumes to disperse more quickly and prevent the rail cars from exploding and sending shrapnel and other debris from flying through the neighborhood.

“We can’t control where that goes,” he said.

The process involves using a small charge to blow a hole in the cars, allowing the material to go into a trench and burning it off before it’s released in the air, he said.

The crews handling the controlled release have done this safely before, Deutsch said.

As the gas gradually released into a trough and workers lit it on fire, it produced a sizable plume above East Palestine. Up until the late afternoon residents could see flames and black smoke above the village. The EPA stated that it is still keeping an eye on the air quality.

On February 6, when Norfolk Southern Railroad torched the chemicals in the rail cars, sending dangerous smells into the air, DeWine and Shapiro ordered the urgent evacuation of hundreds of residents within a 1-mile by 3-mile radius encompassing East Palestine.

“You need to leave, you just need to leave. This is a matter of life and death,” DeWine said at a news conference.

Residents who continued to live there and breathed in the fumes risked dying or suffering grave injuries, such as skin burns and lung damage. According to the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, the majority of the locals are thought to have departed the area before the evacuation. Ohio and Pennsylvania law enforcement officers visited every home to make sure everyone had departed before the controlled release.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there have been no reports of injuries to the train crew, emergency personnel, or locals.

East Palestine residents were able to safely return home on Wednesday, according to Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick, and other officials from both states.

Sources in East Palestine tell The Ohio Star that Governor Mike DeWine (R-OH) flew by helicopter from Columbus to East Palestine for a 45 minute press conference on February 8, then flew immediately back to Columbus after the end of that press conference and has had very little hands on involvement in dealing with the disaster since.

Contractors from Norfolk Southern Railroad went to residences over the weekend that had at risk drinking water wells, according to the East Palestine Police Department.

The Ohio EPA reported that the derailment’s runoff had an effect on Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek, and the Ohio River. On February 10, Norfolk Southern Railroad’s contractors built a dam and a water bypass at Sulphur Run to stop additional contamination of the waterways downstream.

There have been reports of hundreds of dead fish in the Ohio river near East Palestine since the derailment.

According to Ohio Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Officer Supervisor Scott Angelo, although not confirmed it’s possible that the pollution lowered dissolved oxygen levels in the water, basically suffocating the fish.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources will still need to evaluate what caused the fish to die, which could take up to a month while the agency deals with the emergency response. However they estimate that the derailment resulted in the deaths of 3,500 fish, across approximately 7.5 miles of streams.

The EPA says they have performed hundreds of tests confirming the water and air are in good living condition. Though it said it was continuing to monitor the air throughout East Palestine, including inside at least 210 homes. The EPA also said its investigating soil and surface water contamination near the crash site and have collected spilled material in a nearby stream.

But some residents have complained that since the derailment they have had headaches and felt sick.

U.S. Senator JD Vance (R-OH) said that his office will be investigating these concerns in the weeks to come.

“This is a complex environmental disaster with impacts that may be difficult to assess in the short term. Long-term study will be imperative. As will long-term commitment to remediation by Norfolk Southern for the property damaged, the wildlife disrupted, and the community scarred by this accident,” Vance said.

Democratic U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has yet to publicly address the disaster.

Buttigieg reportedly did not speak on the Ohio incident Monday at the National Association of Counties conference, prompting outrage from Democrats and Republicans alike.

“He jokes about balloons while ignoring East Palestine, OH,” former Democratic Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, tweeted alongside a video of Buttigieg making fun of the Chinese spy balloon that was shot down last week over the Atlantic Ocean. “We deserve better than this.”

According to Vance, once East Palestine has been cleaned up he will be looking into the Transportation Departments approach to the rail system.

“Why did this happen? After the cleanup and safety of everyone is ensured, we will turn our attention to how to prevent this in the future. Many questions remain unanswered about the quality of the braking system used, the durability of the repair parts in the trains, and the Transportation Department’s regulatory approach to our nation’s rail system,” Vance said.

In the meantime, locals have launched a federal lawsuit to compel Norfolk Southern to implement health monitoring for citizens in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The lawsuit requires the rail operator to pay for medical screenings and related care for anyone residing within a 30-mile radius of the derailment. Two Pennsylvania residents filed the lawsuit on Thursday. The lawsuit seeks the medical screenings to determine who the toxic substances released after the derailment harmed. The action seeks unspecified damages.

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Hannah Poling is a lead reporter at The Ohio Star and The Star News Network. Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahPoling1. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “East Palestine Train Wreck” by City of East Palestine, Ohio.