On February 3, about 50 railroad cars derailed in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, causing harmful chemicals such as carcinogenic vinyl chloride to leak into the air, soil and water. A huge fire broke out at the scene of the accident, and thick smoke covered the sky. Residents were ordered to evacuate as the governor warned of a possible explosion and said leaving was “a matter of life or death.” Schools were closed for a week, along with some roads, reports Slobodna Dalmacija.
After the derailment, a Norfolk Southern train had to undergo a “controlled burn” on February 6 to safely release toxic chemicals from the cargo. This created a huge ball of fire and a column of black smoke above the accident site, images of which began to spread on social media, followed by the hashtag #OhioChernobyl.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates major rail accidents, said a failure in the axle – the rod that connects the train’s two wheels – caused the derailment. In doing so, Norfolk Southern was tasked with cleaning up the mess. After an initial donation of $25,000 to the community, the company said it will give $1,000 each in “inconvenience checks” to residents within the evacuation zone.
On February 8, local officials announced that air quality monitoring had not detected worrisome pollutants above levels considered safe for humans, and that it was safe for people to return home. “The Ohio Department of Agriculture assures the public that the food supply is secure and the risk to livestock remains low following the East Palestine train derailment,” the agency said.
Officials say it is now safe for people to return home. But the damage has not stopped: people in East Palestine and neighboring towns are suffering from respiratory problems and skin reactions, while numerous animals have been found dead. Also, it is not clear what kind of support the affected citizens have, as well as who even meets the conditions for this support.
Residents have reported inconsistencies with the aid policy and frustration with the one-mile qualifying bar, as many who live well outside that zone have also had to evacuate and are suffering from symptoms. Likewise, some experts have warned that the impacts of the flaring could be long-lasting if and when the chemicals seep into the soil and groundwater.
On Sunday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a list of toxic chemicals that were in the train cars that derailed. The most worrisome chemical carried by the train is vinyl chloride, which is used to make polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. It is colorless and highly flammable. It is linked to a rare form of liver cancer, as well as other cancers such as leukemia and lung cancer. Short-term effects of exposure include dizziness and drowsiness, while high exposure can lead to hospitalization and death.
Another chemical is butyl acrylate, which is also used in the production of plastics. But the EPA later announced that three previously unreported chemicals were also released into the air, soil and water after the slip: ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether. Exposure to these compounds can cause shallow breathing, burning skin and eyes, coughing, and headache and nausea, among other symptoms.
The EPA noted that “areas of contaminated soil and free liquids were observed and potentially covered and/or filled during railroad reconstruction, including portions of a pit used for open burning of vinyl chloride.” As of February 13, EPA had not detected vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride. – a chemical released by the combustion of vinyl chloride – in 291 homes inspected, with 181 homes pending inspection.Officials told residents that monitoring showed the area’s drinking water was safe.
Residents of East Palestine point out that they are losing confidence in government officials and Norfolk Southern, since they did not clearly report the scale of the disaster and the threat to public health. Local business owners and residents are suing the trucking company in an attempt to force it to cover the cost of medical exams for all residents within a 30-mile radius of the slide. The lawsuit claims the company “failed to exercise reasonable care to protect” local residents, who were “exposed to toxic substances, toxic fumes and carcinogens.”
Amanda Greathouse, who lives near the crash site, was evacuated about an hour after the incident. She did not return home until a week later, but only to collect her personal belongings. Even then, as she and her family walked through the house, wearing masks and gloves, an ominous smell wafted over. After going out, her eyes burned and itched, her throat hurt and she had a rash; her husband and both sisters had migraines. The next day, the family went to a relief center to receive a check for $1,000 for the inconvenience. After four hours of waiting, the Greathouses were informed that they needed more documents. They were forced to return to their home again, where they renewed their symptoms.
Taylor Holzer, an animal caretaker, lost one of his foxes. Others are in bad shape, with swollen faces, upset stomachs and watery eyes. Holzer’s dog, which only returned home after the evacuation order was lifted, began coughing and wheezing. “He goes into such violent coughing fits that his front legs give way,” Holzer said.