East Palestine, Ohio: Exploring The Worst Environmental Disaster in the History of the USA

Thomas Martin

On 3rd February 2023, a freight train carrying various potentially hazardous chemicals derailed in the town of East Palestine in Ohio, USA. This tragic environmental disaster is causing the residents of East Palestine to fear for their safety, as well as that of the town’s water and air. Thomas Martin explores the aftermath of the event, and solutions to prevent incidents like in the future.

How would you feel if a 150-car train derailed near you? Especially if 20 of the cars were carrying hazardous materials? You would probably be a bit concerned – especially if the authorities’ information was contradictory in nature.

If so, spare a thought for the residents of eastern Ohio, near the town of East Palestine. The hazardous chemicals onboard – such as vinyl chloride, a carcinogen – were discharged into the local area, which is particularly serious due to the health effects associated with exposure to this chemical. These include liver, brain and lung cancer, as well as lymphoma and leukaemia. 

Before assessing and suggesting solutions, the facts need to be outlined. The reason for the derailment is thought to have been due to a mechanical problem, via a faulty wheel bearing due to overheating, as reported by Euronews. The Office of Mike DeWine, the Governor of Ohio, announced 5 days later that it was safe for the 1,000 evacuated residents to return home. Even after a controlled burning, ending on February 8th, to prevent a larger explosion (according to the Governor) there was still hydrogen chloride and phosgene released; the latter was a chemical weapon used during World War 1.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) also assured residents that their food supply was safe and livestock contamination was low, via WKBN. Residents should have been reassured and able to return to their normal lives, safe in the knowledge that the authorities have taken care of the situation. However, nearly 2 weeks after the derailment, residents were reporting dead fish and chickens, and one of the Senators of Ohio, JD Vance, posted a video to Twitter showing him prodding a creek with a stick causing blackish-blue bubbles to pop and burst at the surface.

Zooming in on local events, pictured above is a photo taken by Nick Sortor via Twitter, from the East Palestine High School auditorium, which illustrates local uproar over the incident. What’s more, he claims that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is misleading the local residents over the true safety of the local environment.

7.5 miles of streams had been infected, killing an estimated 3,500 small fish

Another video was posted, showing water from a creek in East Palestine highly polluted with the same symptoms as Senator Vance found. In assessing the scale of the disaster, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said that 7.5 miles of streams had been infected, killing an estimated 3,500 small fish. CNBC spoke with Jenna Giannios, a resident who had a persistent cough since the derailment. She said, “they only evacuated only 1 mile from that space, and that’s just insane to me”.

Thus, there seems to be conflicting policy responses from the Office of the Governor and the information provided by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a ‘Hysplit Model’ outlining the trajectory of the particles as of 8th February, which are vast and reach far in distance.

There seems to be a major conflict between the local community and the level of trust towards health authorities. By 14th February, the EPA found no vinyl chloride (released in derailment) or hydrogen chloride (released in burning) in over 400 homes, but it is easy to understand why residents would still be concerned when seeing videos like those provided by Senator Vance. 

The lack of more information, alongside the lack of real attention from the federal government, means questions regarding longer-term impact are still up in the air, and with potential misinformation on social media polluting the purity of information provided. Instead, the Biden administration have been occupied with their ‘UFO’ event and Chinese balloon ongoings, and trying to dodge the claim from veteran investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, that the USA blew up the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline, not Russia.

The reason for the local anger towards the Biden administration can be seen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) turning down Gov. Mike DeWine’s request for federal disaster assistance. FEMA did not believe it was a traditional disaster, such as hurricanes or tornadoes. That said, the Department of Health and Human Services did provide some health assistance towards local residents, which does count as the federal government helping – albeit in a very restricted way.

This decision by FEMA is baffling as – regardless of their budgetary situation – it would be reasonable to assume there are emergency funds for situations such as this, which could be reimbursed partially if Norfolk and Southern Trains (who owned the derailed train) are sued and held liable for damages. 

The problem with poor transport infrastructure and chemicals has been repeated

Overall, it seems that media attention has been diverted elsewhere, for better or worse. However, the problem with poor transport infrastructure and chemicals has been repeated. Another Norfolk and Southern train derailed outside Detroit, though only carrying one car of hazardous materials. Unfortunately, the braking system malfunctions were due to them not being updated to reflect 21st Century standards.

The reason for this – as reported by the Daily Mail – is due to President Trump’s administration repealing an Obama policy which requires railway operators to update their braking systems, and instead allowing companies (such as the culprit here) to continue using their cheaper post-Civil war technology. Lobbyists – which in this case were the Norfolk and Southern corporation – persuaded the former president to do this, and it seems lobbying from companies and wealthy individuals is at the heart of many problems in both the UK and USA political systems.

That said, the Democrats have had a trifecta, holding both chambers in Congress and the Presidency, for 2 years, up until the midterms, meaning that they had ample opportunity to rescind Trump’s decision, or even for Biden to issue an Executive Order. Blaming one party or politician will not immediately help the situation, and it would make more sense to share the blame equally from administrations to the railway companies.

In addition, it is required to fix the general issue without involvement from lobbyists that do seem to have such a tight grasp on politics, regardless of, for example, ‘drain the swamp’ promises, like that from former President Trump. 

Specifically focusing on a policy remedy, Steven Ditmeyer, speaking to Level News as a former Federal Railroad Administration official, said the federal government should support electronically controlled pneumatic brakes. He argued these types of brakes would have reduced the severity of the accident. That said, Jessica Kahanek, an Association of American Railroads spokeswoman argued, on USA Today, that ECP brakes have “significant’” failure rates.

These clashes either support the point on lobbyists and general misinformation causing damage to politics and our society, or that there are such deep, entrenched interests built into politics that, simply put, neither side is presenting the pure answer that would help as many people as possible. 

It is a sad state of affairs, but nothing new.

The plethora of factors that need to be accounted for in ascertaining appropriate remedies is often too complex for short-term solutions, which is why committees and inquiries take several months to come to a conclusion. USA Today reported that the Norfolk and Southern corporation has lost 40% of its workforce in recent years, and the train that derailed had just 2 employees on-board. Whilst this is no true intervening factor in reducing their liability, it still stands that the level of context needed is long and deep.

Who will be making the decision, or at least, will get the most media attention over his decision?

The minutia of policy is going to work against the local community

That resides with the Secretary of State for Transport, Pete Buttigieg. However, the current legislation in the works from the Biden administration, supported by the rail industry, would see brake testing frequency reduced. It is farcical – almost comedic at this point – in that no matter who you support, Donald Trump or Joe Biden, the minutia of policy is going to work against the local community. This is in contradiction of direct statements made, such as Buttigieg’s in The Independent: “DOT is continually updating and enforcing rail regulations to make trains safer and push the injury rate toward zero”.

The word ‘plutocracy’ comes into consideration at this point, as the derailment, and other environmental disasters across the USA are getting more frequent and dangerous. A key example is the Kissimmee nursery fire in Florida, that has seen hundreds of pallets of plastic plant pots set on fire, releasing more hazardous chemicals. The altruistic Members of Congress and the US political system should ‘defeat in detail’ the bad policies and practices.

Yes, it is better said than done, but that is the only long-term, viable and sustainable solution to solving niche problems, such as the braking systems on trains carrying hazardous chemicals. Then, this attitude could be transferred to other areas of politics and associated problem-areas, such as wider transport (trains, generally) and its associated infrastructure (railways and bridges). Similarities to the derailment response could be made with the response to the dumping of raw sewage into UK rivers – a lot of bluster, but a muted response. 

Whilst the clean-up may have begun locally, the clean-up nationally will be a deep, long wade through the US political system, which is definitely no easy task.

Thomas Martin

Featured image by Vladyslav Cherkasenko from Unsplash.com. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In-article image 1 courtesy of @nicksortor via twitter.com. No changes were made to this image.

In-article image 2 courtesy of The Air Resources Laboratory of NOAA via arl.noaa.gov. No changes were made to this image.

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