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The connection between two train cars

East Palestine train derailment raises concerns for Ohio residents

March 6, 2023

On Feb. 13, 2023, train cars in East Palestine, OH derailed and caught on fire due to a technical issue with one of the axles. The train cars were carrying chemicals, one being vinyl chloride, found in everyday plastic items. When authorities performed a controlled burn in a trench to avoid a possible explosion, toxic fumes rose over the small town by the Pennsylvanian border. 

The Response

With time, the chemical would have evaporated on its own, still contaminating the atmosphere. This vinyl chloride was gas at room temperature, meaning it was a liquid with the ability to evaporate. To get rid of the risk of explosion, officials decided a controlled burn was the quickest way to minimize that risk.

JAHS science teacher Jennifer Calland is teaching Environmental Science this year and has done her fair share of research on the incident.

“I think if it were left to evaporate there would be vinyl chloride in the atmosphere anyway…” she says. “…I guess my question is which is more toxic: the vinyl chloride gas or the components of what happens when it’s burned.” 

With all of the known consequences following the contained burn, Calland concludes that hosting a controlled burn was the quickest and safest option. 

“A controlled burn was probably the fastest way…” she says. “…I think the main reason why it was decided to burn it was because of the risk of explosion. If there wasn’t that risk of explosion I think they may have gone a different route.” 

Environmental Science student and junior Maddy Headings says she first heard about the accident during her first-period environmental science class with Calland after doing research for a class project. 

“[The most surprising thing I’ve learned is] that the government evacuated [citizens of East Palestine, OH] and didn’t fix the issue before they told them to come back,” Headings says.

Environmental Protection Agency involvement

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allowed citizens of East Palestine to return home after continuous and thorough testing of the area. The decision to send people back came after the EPA found little to no traces of chemicals in the air. While there is no solid solution to get rid of the chemicals, the EPA came to the consensus that they need to continue testing

Calland says, “the EPA has been testing the air and water every day and went door to door to take indoor air samples of each of the homes. There were no traces of the VOCs [volatile organic compounds] that could make people sick.”

The accident and controlled burn have been followed by many consequences, especially for residents of East Palestine, OH. 

Headings mentions her concerns about the lasting effects of the chemicals released. “[my biggest concern is] that people will show serious health defects,” she says. 

Residents of East Palestine exposed to the air during the controlled burn have been getting sick, but there is little information to show whether or not it’s related to the accident. 

“Even though people were saying they could still smell the chemicals and it was still giving them headaches and sore throats, there’s just nothing testable there,” Calland says.

Moving forward

Calland also talks about how the most important thing residents of East Palestine can do in this situation is report and document anything strange that happens, such as getting sick or seeing an animal get sick. Without concrete evidence of these medical events, there isn’t much anyone can do to try to solve the problem.

 Calland says, “You should be documenting anything unnormal that you see or experience because it could be part of something bigger you might not have thought about but other people are experiencing the same thing.” 

“The only way we can know for sure that these things are happening is if people report these to the Department of Public Health, Department of Natural Resources because that’s the only way it will ever be on the record,” Calland says. “Even if we don’t think anything is happening here in our area we can’t ever say that correlation equals causation.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), or the environmental disaster response, doesn’t apply to this particular accident because it didn’t follow the specific guidelines for being considered a major disaster under federal law. The accident didn’t meet the major disaster definition because it didn’t cause any property damage; a crucial component of classifying a major disaster under federal law. 

The train company, Norfolk Southern, is being held personally responsible for the reparations of the accident. To date, the company owes about 6.5 million dollars to help the residents of East Palestine affected by the incident. This amount doesn’t include the cost of the cleanup itself. 

Calland says that on a scale of one to ten, one being not concerned and ten being seriously concerned, the citizens of East Palestine should be a 10/10. The situation is both unique and even more difficult because yes, the chemicals released can cause respiratory distress and cancer, but it could also be a common cold. Further testing is needed to rule out these effects and deem the area safe. 

“They need to demand testing, consistent, continuous, testing of the air, the soil, the water table, and consistent medical checkups,” Calland says. “The main concern people should be worried about is the effect of the pollutant in the water table. When the water travels through the Ohio River it also seeps down into the ground and that’s where many people get their water from– wells.” 

Implications for the rest of Ohio

Most recent records show that there are currently about 879,000 water wells located in Ohio alone. Vinyl chloride is highly mobile in soils and water and can persist for years in groundwater. Vinyl chloride breaks down and dissipates in a day or two; it would not be found in the air now. 

As an Ohio resident that uses well water as her main water source, Headings has concerns about the toxic chemicals using waterways to travel.

Headings says, “I am [concerned about the toxins spreading] because the Ohio River eventually branches off to a lot of different rivers.” 

Calland says that while Plain City is geographically south of East Palestine, we are upstream from the Ohio River, meaning the community shouldn’t have many concerns about the chemicals in the water here. The water in Plain City makes its way into the Ohio River, but not vice versa. The wind and weather patterns also suggest Plain City won’t see many particles in the air or water. 

While Plain City doesn’t need to worry as much about contaminated water, Calland mentions cities like Cincinnati that directly border the Ohio River should show concerns about the chemical concentrations in the water.

Calland says that “concentrations [of the chemical] have lessened every time they measure because as the water moves down the river it starts to dilute it. That’s a good sign.”

As citizens of Ohio, Calland says we should be concerned about acid rain and particles that we’re breathing. “In our community, healthwise, the risk is very low. When [vinyl chloride is] burned, it creates hydrogen chloride, which would create hydrochloric acid in the rainwater, which is where the concern for acid rain is coming from.” 

We should also be worried about policy changes to keep these kinds of things from happening to our community. Calland says she would like to think this incident will lead to railroad reforms. 

“This is what gets the attention of people in the government to make changes,” Calland says. “No one is going to stand for anything like this happening ever again.” 

 All indications are that the risks are low but that the situation is unique and requires further studying. On March 6, a month after the derailment in East Palestine, another Norfolk train derailed in Springfield, OH. This train wasn’t carrying hazardous chemicals, but steps are being taken to prevent more accidents with this company from happening in the future. 

Calland says more data and facts are needed to make concrete claims on the effects of the accident. 

“The key of science that people have a hard time accepting is that we know but we don’t know. These are the things that we know, these facts, these data points, and we can use models and previous experiences to predict what’s going to happen but we don’t know everything.”  

About the Contributor
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Emma Kennedy, Staff Writer, Editor

Emma Kennedy is a senior and this is her second year in journalism. Her favorite subject is English because she already spends some of her time writing...

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