Is the Worst Yet to Come? Cleaning up the Contamination in East Palestine, Ohio
By Maya Alcantara, MSB/GSAS ’23 & Common Home Editor
Disaster struck on February 3, 2023, when a freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, a small town fifty miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
How did the accident happen?
After multiple technology failures along the Norfolk Southern railway, the freight train derailed, spilling several chemical substances, the most concerning of which were vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, and ethylhexyl acrylate. Following several days of risk assessment and monitoring, Norfolk Southern Railway Company performed a controlled release and burn to mitigate the risk of a chemical explosion. On February 21, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up all damages associated with the derailment and chemical spill. The railway company will be responsible not only for reimbursing the EPA for clean-up costs but also for providing plans for removing toxic materials, as well as extending financial assistance and community support to the residents of East Palestine. As of March 2, the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins, highly toxic pollutants typically formed by the burning of plastics. The next day– one month after the accident, work began to remove the railway tracks and excavate any contaminated soil. In addition, the EPA will continue to offer air screening and water monitoring services to the East Palestine community upon request. But will this be enough?
The Disaster’s Impact on the Community
Residents of East Palestine are worried about what lies ahead and skeptical of the disaster management capabilities of both Norfolk Southern and the federal government. Various reports of nausea and headaches from impacted East Palestine members have prompted serious concern over the potential suffering of long-term effects from exposure to high concentrations of toxic chemicals. Chemical tests conducted by the EPA indicate that East Palestine’s municipal water is safe to drink. However, there is ongoing testing of private wells. As for air monitoring, the EPA has conducted 601 home re-entry screenings with no detection of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride. Ultimately, extended screenings must be performed to understand and assess the short- and long-term consequences of chemical exposure.
Even upon proper excavation and cleaning, chemicals can still seep into the soil and water, posing lasting and unknown health risks in the future. At this time, the impacts on biodiversity and aquatic life are more apparent than on human health. It was estimated that within a five-mile span of the accident, 38,222 minnows and 5,500 other aquatic species were killed as an immediate effect of chemical spillage into nearby waterways.
The detrimental impacts on aquatic life in the region will be determined by the persistence of the spilled chemicals in the water and soil. In particular, the health and resiliency of the Hellbender salamanders, an endangered species in this area, has caused some concern within the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. After years of conservation efforts to increase Hellbenders in Ohio streams, the impact of the chemical spill can potentially reverse previous efforts. Sustained monitoring will be performed to better assess the cascading environmental costs of the derailment and chemical spill.
The clean-up and removal process is underway at the accident site, but the future human health and environmental impacts are still uncertain. The primary concern of the clean-up process is the safe disposal of materials and the prevention of additional leakage or contamination in transportation. Approximately 2.7 million gallons of liquid waste and 1,970 tons of contaminated soil have been collected and sent to various toxic waste disposable plants across multiple states. Recent events have also prompted concerns from politicians and residents regarding the competency of clean-up officials. For instance, poor communication across disaster management authorities resulted in several toxic waste facilities claiming they were unaware of shipments containing impact site materials coming to their plants. What does this mean for the future?
The Next Steps
The EPA will continue to oversee the waste removal process by Norfolk Southern and work to ensure that the hazardous and contaminated materials are disposed of per safety regulations. In addition, officials will monitor the area through regular sampling and data collection efforts. A community service center was recently opened to address the residents’ concerns and provide any necessary support.
The consequences of the derailment – and the remediation required – will likely take frequent twists in the months and years to come. Amidst this devastation, one hopes there is a silver lining; that the incident’s complexities and controversies shape best practices to prevent and resolve other threats to human and ecological health.