The future of East Palestine
It is difficult to believe that it has already been three weeks since the horrific derailment of a train in East Palestine, Ohio. The wreck brought toxic fumes and contaminated soil to the people and responders of East Palestine along with years of what could be financial woes, illness and stress.
Despite officials lifting a previously enforced evacuation order five days after the derailment, residents have reported a number of ailments – from rashes to nausea to trouble breathing.
The US Environmental Protection Agency is ordering Norfolk Southern to handle and pay for all of the necessary cleanup after its freight train derailment led to an intentional release of vinyl chloride to help avert a more catastrophic blast.
This derailment will go down on history and no doubt will be the catalyst for many talks at conferences nationwide as emergency managers and responders are already looking back at the wreck along with the response to see what happened, what could have been differently and what are the best practices.
The derailment occurred on February 3, 2023 at 8:55 p.m. eastern standard time, an important factor as sundown was 5:53 p.m. making for a more treacherous and challenging initial response. 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed leaving several rail-cars to burn almost freely for more than two days.
Emergency crews conducted a controlled burn of several rail-cars at the request of state officials which released hydrogen chloride and phosgene into the air. As a result, evacuations were started of those dwelling within a mile radius of the spill, fire and train.
According to the report I received from Norfolk Southern, “The eastbound Norfolk SouthernRailway (NS) general merchandise freight train 32N derailed 38 railcars on main track 1 of the NS Fort Wayne Line of the Keystone Division in East Palestine, Ohio. The derailed equipment included 11 tank cars carrying hazardous materials that subsequently ignited, fueling fires that damaged an additional 12 non-derailed railcars.First responders implemented a 1-mile evacuation zone surrounding the derailment site that affected up to 2,000 residents. There were no reported fatalities or injuries. At the time of the accident, visibility conditions were dark and clear; the weather was 10°F with no precipitation.”
This was an incredibly bitter cold and dark situation for local responders.
Aboard the 9,300 feet long train were an engineer, conductor, and conductor trainee. The train consisted of 141 loaded cars and 9 empty cars. Other reports note one more car, for a total of 151 cars, weighing 18,000 tons.
Of those cars, 20 were carrying hazardous materials, including chloroethene (vinyl chloride), butyl acrylate, 2-ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, isobutylene, combustible liquids, and benzene residue. The train departed Madison on February 1, and had suffered at least one mechanical failure before the derailment.
Train 32N was operating with a dynamic brake application as the train passed a wayside defect detector on the east side of Palestine, Ohio, at milepost (MP) 49.81.4 The wayside defect detector, or hot bearing detector (HBD), transmitted a critical audible alarm message instructing the crew to slow and stop the train to inspect a hot axle. The train engineer increased the dynamic brake application to further slow and stop the train. During this deceleration, an automatic emergency brake application initiated, and train 32N came to a stop.
After the train stopped, the crew observed fire and smoke and notified the-Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment. With dispatcher authorization, the crew applied handbrakes to the two rail-cars at the head of the train, uncoupled the-head-end locomotives, and moved the locomotives about 1 mile from the uncoupled rail-cars. Responders arrived at the derailment site and began response efforts.
49 of the cars had ended up in a derailment pile. 51 derailed cars, 11 of them were tank cars which dumped 100,000 gallons of hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, benzene residue, and butyl acrylate.
Vinyl chloride is a flammable petrochemical used in the manufacture of polymer polyvinylchloride, or PVC. When exposed to heat, vinyl chloride can undergo a rapid polymerization reaction, an exothermic chemical processes.
Firefighters struggled to get close to the flames, and it was impossible to get close enough to read the placards on the side of the rail-cars that alerts firefighters about the contents inside and whether they should be put out with water or not. Within two hours, they knew the contents of the train cars but still could not tell from the pile of twisted, flaming rail-cars if the ones carrying the vinyl chloride, the ones most likely to explode, were the ones on fire.
Nobody knows the full scope or consequences of this accident but most are confident that the community of 4700 will be coping with this for years to come. Experts are adamant that there is absolutely no way of knowing what byproducts have been created by this accident without future research and experimentation.
The cause for concern here is quite real and reminiscent of the situation I found myself in after responding to Hurricane Harvey in the Port Arthur, Texas area where my son and I were exposed to toxins in the flood water causing a myriad of health issues that linger to this day. Dioxins do not degrade easily and tend to accumulate in the soil and can lead to cancer as well as developmental and reproductive problems.
Results could be catastrophic as the small community of East Palestine is rural and therefore is coming close to the annual planting season. It is reasonable to assume that contaminated soil will feed it’s contaminates and dioxins upward into plant life which could cause a contaminated crop situation.
When we refer to a soil contaminant, we are normally referring to an element or chemical present in the soil at a level that could pose health risks. The threat to local East Palestine agriculture has to be considered and soon because of the nature of dioxins and the ability for plant life to absorb them. The main cash crops in the area are soybeans and corn but one can also find wheat, oats, hay, fruits, feeds and vegetables. In assessing the damage and concerns for the future we should also be considering the large numbers of livestock, poultry and dairy products.
In the immediate East Palestine area there are (thankfully) no large animal operations but rather smaller farms with animals such as horses, dairy goats, feeder calves and backyard poultry. The community’s single dairy is milking about 400 head and has about 900 cows total. The good news is that the farm was out of the evacuation area and so was not affected by the smoke plume and appeared to be uphill from the accident site to avoid run-off seepage.
Even as residents report nausea, dizziness, headaches and other ailments, there have been no confirmed cases of poisoning directly and the public has been reminded that many symptoms being reported may be coming in due to the annual flu season.
We all hope it is the flu.
So as this situation develops we will keep up informed and updated here in my blog because the derailment is already yesterday’s news and has become a platform from which to spout ahead the next elections; an unfortunate aspect of the accident’s timing. I can only hope that we stay cognizant of the struggles in this small town and do not deem it unnecessary because of it sized or location. We should care even if it is not Chicago or Denver. We cannot let this fall to the wayside or be forgotten so that the people of East Palestine are left to deal with this on their own.
In Port Arthur, Texas, my exposure was minimal and is responsible for many new health issues I have to deal with. The stress and anxiety in East Palestine has to be off the charts.
After a hurricane there are a myriad of factors on a list that we can check to estimate how long it will take for a community to recover and rebuild. For the panhandle of Florida where Michael made landfall on October 10 with 155 mile per hour winds and flooding, the community members are still struggling due to the lack of public caring and lack of financial support to assist these Americans to recovery. Because the area already had a low profile before the storm, once the media moved on, there was no more attention and therefore, no more help.
Such cannot be the East Palestine.
As East Palestine becomes a victim of the fast moving American news cycle, we will try…I will try to remember to keep posting updates.
In the meantime, please reach out to www.lifeinthearena.org if you want to help those responders from East Palestine that stood in the bitter cold, unable to read the placards on the sides of the cars and yet stood their ground on behalf of the town they love. While the coming years may pose many challenges, one thing is sure; it is a community of absolute badass heroes.