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Train derailment causes ecological disaster, experts say it should have been prevented

A black plume of smoke looms over East Palestine, Ohio. Image courtesy of @CastiglioneFrank on Twiter

A train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 3 resulted in 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic gas, burning into the sky over the town.

The derailing and subsequent release of dangerous chemicals led to the evacuation of an entire town and panic over potentially catastrophic environmental impacts. Former Federal Railroad Administration official Steven Ditmeyer said it should have been prevented.

What Happened?

Norfolk Southern Railway Company, one of the nation's largest railroad companies, owns the 150-car train of which 38 derailed, ten containing vinyl chloride.

When the train derailed, officials decided on a controlled burn of the chemicals as the safest and most efficient way to contain the disaster. The burn resulted in a large black plume of smoke that filled the air around East Palestine.

Vinyl chloride is a flammable, carcinogenic gas used in the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), plastic and vinyl products. It is linked to numerous health issues including liver, brain and lung cancer; leukemia and lymphoma, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations limit exposure to one part per million (PPM) over an eight-hour shift. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride burned over East Palestine constitutes double the amount of chemicals released by all industrial emitters in the United States over the course of a year.

A recent EPA letter to Norfolk Southern said some of the 38 derailed cars contained other dangerous chemicals, including butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl.

The derailment's proximity to the Ohio River raises concerns for the safety of the water supply to eight states, though experts are confident in treatment centers' ability to neutralize contaminated waters.

Patrick Ray, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati, said the contaminants in the river reach a problematic level at five hundred parts per billion. The current contaminant level in the river is four parts per billion.

While long-term effects are uncertain, the disaster has already resulted in vast environmental impacts. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates that over 44,000 aquatic animals have died since the derailment.

An onlooker watches smoke billow into the sky over an East Palestine suburb. Image courtesy of @KanekoaTheGreat on Twitter

Tuesday, the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for the entirety of cleanup and restoration efforts. Refusal will result in a lawsuit with intentions to force the company to pay triple the cost.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan presented the orders to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw in a town hall organized by CNN Wednesday night.

During the town hall, citizens of East Palestine had the chance to directly outline their concerns to Shaw. Amid concerns over transparency from Norfolk Southern and the realities of reconciliation, lifelong resident Jessica Conard reminded those outside of East Palestine that the impacts of this disaster are wide-reaching.

"If you have a train near you or a waterway near you, this is a problem for you too," she said. "Stand up, stand with us and we're gonna fight until the promises are kept."

The residents of East Palestine began returning to their homes amid cleanup efforts. Some residents responded by filing a federal lawsuit seeking compensation for medical treatment and testing.

Was this preventable?

The U.S. railroad system has been a central aspect of the country since the 19th century, with surprisingly few changes over the years.

Modern braking equipment is among the most significant innovations.

According to Federal Railroad Association (FRA), most trains still in use rely on airbrake systems dating back to 1868.

In the early 2000s, new brake technology was introduced. Electronically-controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP brakes) became a necessary safety improvement.

Despite the glaring need for modernization, railroad companies were reluctant to make the change. Norfolk Southern said the project would be too costly and would have too harsh of an impact on the efficiency of rail systems.

Consistent reluctance to make changes led to government intervention. The Obama administration implemented a rule in 2015 requiring trains carrying hazardous materials to be equipped with ECP brakes.

Before the standard took noticeable effect, the incoming Trump administration overturned the ruling. Rail companies now had no legal obligation to update braking systems.

The AAR said the shift to ECP would cost $3 billion, compared to FRA's $500 thousand estimate. According to the SEC, this is two weeks of operating revenue for rail companies.

According to the National Transportation Board, the derailed train in East Palestine was not equipped with ECP brakes. Former FRA official Steven Ditmeyer says that had the train been equipped with the brakes the disaster would have likely been prevented.

Workforce depletion and railroad procedures also contributed to the conditions of the derailment.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a decline in railroad industry workers from a million in the 1950s to under 150,000 in 2022. The workforce dropped by 22% between 2017 and 2021, according to the Associated Press.

The plummet results from an operating procedure introduced in 2017 by railroad companies. Precision-scheduled railroading (PSR) led companies to operate longer trains with less consistent oversight.

Norfolk Southern's workforce has been slashed by 40% since 2015 in the name of PSR according to SEC filings.

Slashing its workforce and cutting maintenance spending, Norfolk Southern announced plans for a $10 billion stock buyback program in March 2022. Railroad companies including Norfolk Southern have spent roughly $196 billion on stock buybacks since 2010, according to the AP.

Progression of ongoing Norfolk Southern stock buyback program. Image courtesy of @MorePerfectUS on twitter

This disaster has quickly been turned into a political talking point for voices on each side of the spectrum. Republican politicians took the opportunity to criticize President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Democratic politicians place the blame on regulations struck down by former President Donald Trump.

Railroad union members and environmental experts agree it is among the most destructive environmental disasters in U.S. history – the product of government deregulation, lobbying and corporate greed.



News editor

Featured image courtesy of @CastiglioneFrank, @KanekoaTheGreat and @MorePerfectUS on Twitter

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