“We Basically Nuked A Town So We Could Get a Railroad Open”: East-Palestine Train Derailment Raises Public Health and Environmental Safety Concerns

Residents of East Palestine, Ohio are exercising vigilance in the wake of a major train derailment that caused a chemical spill in the region earlier this month. CBS News reports that on February 3rd, 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern train transporting combustible materials from Illinois to Pennsylvania derailed and caused a major fire, forcing thousands of residents on the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line to evacuate the area while authorities attempted to contain a potential explosion of hazardous chemicals. Shortly after the evacuation notice, Ohio crews engaged in a “controlled release” of the toxic waste cargo from five of the derailed cars into a trench that was burned off, lifting a noxious plume of hydrogen chloride and phosgene gas into the atmosphere. 

Though the evacuation order was lifted on February 8th after air and water samples of the one-mile release zone were cleared by state environmental regulators to be safe, the long-term public health implications of such a hazard on East Palestine residents, as well as the environmental danger posed to surrounding ecosystems, remain in question. Some have reported unusual physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, burning skin, and respiratory issues, as well as sightings of dead fish and chickens near waterways. A chemical odor lingers in many homes. Some experts have even encouraged East Palestine residents to field current public health recommendations from the Ohio government with discretion.  “I was kind of surprised when they quickly told the people they could go back home,” Sil Caggiano, a former Ohio fire department chief and hazmat specialist, told WYTV News with fears that some of the chemicals released were carcinogenic and had not been adequately tested and cleaned before reopening the evacuated area. “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.” 

 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency flagged similar concerns in a letter to Norfolk Southern on Monday, alleging based on their investigation that the Norfolk Southern work response team had failed to successfully rid the land of chemical byproducts, opting to rebuild the rail-line over contaminated soil that could pose a substantial threat to groundwater and threaten the Ohio River water supply. While Norfolk Southern has committed to reimburse impacted residents in the evacuation zone for up to $1,000 and oversee further remediation costs, representatives from the rail company denied requests to appear at a town meeting on Wednesday to address these initiatives with residents directly, fostering more discontent between the firm and Ohioans demanding accountability. 

Norfolk Southern’s piecemeal conduct in this disaster has also aggravated an already-weary base of union rail workers, who warned the political establishment in December that the cost-cutting management practices of Norfolk Southern and other hedge-fund operated rail companies would eventually culminate in a crisis of this scale. According to Environmental Health News, the union Rail Workers United organized a strike in late 2022 over the company’s job cuts and loosening of inspection protocols that posed higher risk of accidents and maintenance issues for operators on the ground- a deal quickly brokered by President Joe Biden, with the support of the Senate and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, by enacting legislation to avert the strike and deter workers from walkouts. The current crisis in East Palestine inarguably reflects the prior negligence and profit-driven motives of political calculations made by Congress and the President, in consort with the American railroad lobby, of which Norfolk Southern forms a considerable part; the nonprofit advocacy group Open Secrets reported the company as the second highest-contributor to federal candidates and parties within the sector in 2022. 

Nearly two weeks following the initial derailment, the Biden administration put out a statement on February 17th pledging to coordinate federal aid to Ohio through the CDC and Department of Health and Human Services. While the administration has finally seized an opportunity to redeem its past missteps, these measures come across to many railroad workers and Ohioans in need as too-little-too-late, and questions remain as to how Norfolk Southern wll be fully held accountable. Residents of East Palestine remain scared to return home and uncertain in the midst of contradictory messaging from the state government and health experts in the community. Some have even resolved to join a class-action lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, according to Global News. 

“Every time we go home, our house has wreaked of chemicals”, East Palestine local Kasie Lock stressed in an interview to Newsweek. “The water isn’t safe. The air doesn’t seem to be either. They sent everyone home so quick. They are trying to make it as minimal as possible, and sweep it under the rug. We can’t let them. The amount of lives and businesses and homes they have affected is astronomical. I don’t know that we’ll ever return permanently.”