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Train hauling toxic chemicals derails in Ohio border town, creates ‘environmental disaster’ in majority-White region

East Palestine, OH – The residents of East Palestine, a village on the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania, are coming face to face with what some call an “environmental disaster.” A derailed train full of toxic chemicals forced a late-night evacuation that lasted for days and has left many with a mountain of unanswered questions, questions which private rail corporations and the state governments seem unwilling to answer.

On February 3rd, the population of East Palestine—a 93% White town that sits squarely in the middle of post-industrial America—was ordered to vacate their homes by the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania. A train owned by Norfolk Southern Railway derailed, and several cars containing vinyl chloride, a colorless compound used for industrial purposes, were caught among those thrown from the tracks. The derailed cars, 20 in total, all contained toxic materials, 10 of which are believed to have been carrying the aforementioned vinyl chloride.

Train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Gene J. Puskar/AP

After establishing a square mile evacuation zone and deploying both local, national guard, and EPA teams, it was announced that the vinyl chloride and other chemicals would be disposed of by way of controlled burning. On Monday, the national guard used thermite devices to start a burn of the 5 cars that remained smoldering and then drained the Vinyl Chloride and Phosgene into a ditch lined with flares. The controlled burn was made to eradicate the remaining material despite clear environmental concerns. Authorities apparently embarked upon this course of action rather than allowing a runaway thermal reaction to take place within the railcar.

This process resulted in a remarkable plume of ash and chemical smoke, which then settled over the area and began to raise a new set of concerns among local residents. Authorities claimed that this controlled burn was preferable to a chemical explosion which may have caused a ‘rain of shrapnel’ and chemical destruction over a wide area, yet there is speculation that the resulting burn of chemicals—among them phosgene which is remarkably dangerous to human health—may lead to other unintended environmental consequences, some of which local residents believe they may already be witnessing.

Toxic fume cloud over East Palestine. Photo courtesy TikTok

But despite venting off a vast amount of highly toxic chemicals into the atmosphere above eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, recently elected Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro commented that the controlled burn operation went “as planned” during a conference Monday night. He also noted that there were “no concerning” air and water quality issues that were detected in early reports.

“For now, out of an abundance of caution, Pennsylvanians who live within two miles of East Palestine, where this derailment occurred, should just continue to shelter in place this evening and keep your windows and your doors closed,”

Pennsylvania Governor, Josh Shapiro

After interviewing numerous residents, local media has published material relating to possible environmental impacts from the derailment. Among them are examples of dead fish, deceased pet birds, and chickens as far as 10 miles out, which appear to have died en masse. The developments raise numerous more widespread environmental concerns; among them, worries about the potential impact on the wider region, as chemicals from the derailment appear to have spilled into the Ohio river, one of the main inland transit and economic corridors in the nation. The downstream effects of this spillage could potentially affect not only Ohio but also the states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Southern Illinois, and even Missouri and Tennessee, as they are covered by the basin of the river.

Users on social media report chemicals in waterways and streams that connect with East Palestine up to miles away. Photo courtesy Twitter user @Yo_Martinez

Yet, the Environmental Protection Agency and the governments of Ohio and Pennsylvania, alongside local officials and the Norfolk Southern management, continue to insist that the area is safe and the disposal method proved a success. Such a success that East Palestine residents were finally allowed to return to their homes on the evening of February 8th.

Residents—many of whom had to spend upwards of 6 days in hotels and motels and were unable to work as they looked after their families in the midst of an emergency—are worried about not only the future of the livability of their town but also the possibility they will not be reimbursed for the fiscal impact of this disaster.

Governor Mike DeWine of Ohio has stated that he “expects” the railroad to pay and is quoted as saying Norfolk Southern has “indicated their willingness to pay individuals relocation, hotels, etc fees”. This, however, may be of little reassurance to the residents of East Palestine.

Derailment damage and train car pileup, Photo courtesy of AP

Rail corporations in the United States, which enjoy oligopoly status, are subject to preferential treatment by the Federal government. The Federal Railroad Administration has a history of letting railways off with a slap on the wrist as they collect only minimal fines in the face of infractions.

Moreover, the demographics of East Palestine are reason enough to expect that the state and Federal governments may not be willing to invest significant time or effort into helping residents. An example can be found up north in the state of Michigan, where the Federal government continues to refuse to own up to the massive pollution of Oscoda county. The community affected and its population—much like Ohio’s East Palestine—is overwhelmingly White. Meanwhile, the disaster produced by local, and largely Black, incompetence in Flint, Michigan, currently enjoys support from every level of government.

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