Toxic Train Crash Underlines Need for Rail Safety

Officials are blaming one another, and local residents are enraged.

Source : Wikipedia Commons

March 1, 2023

Author : Patty Allen

A freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, which led to several questions about the cause of the accident, the need for rail safety, and the long-term health concerns. 

Among the 38 cars that derailed, 11 carried toxic substances, and five carried 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride (an odorless gas used to make PVC). Fires were extinguished at the derailment site by February 5, but authorities feared five carriages holding vinyl chloride would explode. As a result, officials burned the chemical in a controlled manner, creating a massive cloud of black smoke above East Palestine.

Residents reported feeling sick with symptoms including nausea, headaches, and rashes even after a week after the massive derailment.  The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated 3,500 animal deaths due to the toxic train crash, but unofficially the figure is somewhere around 45,000.

A further problem has been the disposal of wastewater from East Palestine, which has been carried to a Houston suburb for disposal. At a news conference, Houston County Judge Lina Hidalgo stated that 500,000 gallons (1.8 million liters) of wastewater was brought to Deer Park, Texas, for disposal by Texas Molecular, which has the expertise to inject hazardous waste into the ground. The chemicals were transported 1,300 miles from East Palestine to Deer Park.

Officials are blaming one another, while frustrated residents grilled Ohio's governor Mike DeWine and Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw about - air and water safety, cleaning efforts, long term health concerns related to toxin release due to the crash.

NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said preparing the final report will take around 12 to 18 months.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported that the train tried to slow down before the crash as soon as they understood the wheel bearing was heating up. Their preliminary report stated that the threshold level reached 253 degrees Fahrenheit above the standard temperature. The automatic braking system was initiated, allowing the train to stop when the crew observed fire and smoke. The report found no evidence of the train traveling above the speed limit of 50mph or 80km/h.

 In the meantime, CEO Alan Shaw said in an interview they had paid $6.5m to the residents living near the accident scene. Shaw said, " We know we will be judged by our actions, and we are taking this accountability and responsibility very seriously."

President Biden’s administration has also received a lot of flak for their delayed response, but the White House officials have denied such claims. The President has directed federal employees to visit every house in the town and to check on the people.

Vox's Umair Irfan said, " Rail workers, government officials, and industry analysts have long warned that such disasters are an expected consequence of an industry that has aggressively cut costs, slashed its workforce, and resisted regulation for years."

The cause of the derailment is still unclear, whether an equipment failure of the train or due to the broken and degraded track it was traveling on. 

Initially, Shaw said they had a sound environmental plan depending on engineering principles to deal with the chemical spill on the soil. After the pushback from the residents, Norfolk Southern decided to remove the tracks entirely; the work is expected to start by the beginning of next month.

He added that the company, conjointly with the Environmental Protection Agency, is working on a long-term remediation plan. They will continue to monitor testing from various agencies and contractors and set up groundwater testing in and around the accident site.

Norfolk Southern plans to review the outcomes of the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation and use the data to determine what they could have done better. The EPA has ordered Norfolk Southern to pay the full cost of the train disaster cleanup.

Norfolk Southern will be forced to present a detailed work plan outlining how they intend to clean up the water, soil, and debris and reimburse the EPA for cleaning citizens' homes and businesses.

Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern has come under mounting criticism for trying to manage the narrative around the disaster and hold sway over local authorities and even police. It is also said to have exploded a large amount of the chemicals, rather than remove them in a more safe but costly operation.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said the state's acting attorney general is looking into whether criminal charges should be filed in the derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railroad train in East Palestine, Ohio, just across the state line. 

Shapiro believes Congress should take action to make railroads safer.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has said that railways and tank car owners should modify tank cars that carry hazardous substances like crude oil and ethanol by 2025 instead of waiting until Congress adopted the 2029 standard after regulators suggested the earlier deadline. To reduce weariness, freight railways could negotiate additional paid sick time agreements. However, Buttigieg and other officials have come under criticism themselves.

After years of job losses, railroad unions worry that vehicle inspections are being rushed and preventative maintenance may be disregarded. 

In early December of 2022 leaders from the GOP and DNC, the country's political establishment, working together stopped railroad workers from going on strike.

Category : Federal Government Health and Safety Investment in Infrastructure State Government Railroads

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