Drone footage taken February 6, 2023, shows a freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio (OSV News photo/NTSBGov handout via Reuters).

Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, are still reeling from a February 3 train derailment that led to a chemical explosion two days later. An overheated wheel bearing on one of the train’s 141 cars caused the accident on the small town’s eastern outskirts, less than half a mile from the Pennsylvania border. In the days after the crash, one of the five cars containing vinyl chloride—a known carcinogen used to make PVC plastic—registered an alarming temperature change that could have caused a catastrophic explosion. Officials issued an evacuation order, then vented and burned the cars, creating a toxic mushroom cloud. Other hazardous chemicals also leaked into the surrounding air and water, but three days later, on February 8, the EPA declared the air quality safe enough to end the evacuation. Returning residents have complained of headaches, dizziness, and strong chemical odors. Thousands of fish in local waterways have died from the contamination, but the chemicals that reached the Ohio river were diluted enough that municipal water is safe to drink. Residents with wells have been advised to drink bottled water until their wells have been tested.

The derailed train was operated by Norfolk Southern, whose initial response to the accident made a bad situation worse. A letter from Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro outlines the ways the company failed to consult state and local agencies about its disaster response and decision to vent and burn all the cars containing vinyl chloride. Shapiro accused Norfolk Southern of “prioritizing an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line,” which “injected unnecessary risk and created confusion.”

Without improved regulation, the next derailment—and there will be another—could have much worse consequences.

This is not the first time a rail company has sought to maximize profits at the expense of workers and communities. In the name of greater efficiency, railroads have in recent years slashed staff and stretched their remaining employees to the breaking point. Their lobbyists have also resisted safety regulations at every turn. They persuaded the Trump administration to roll back a 2015 rule that required rail companies to modernize the “Civil War–era” brakes on any train carrying “high-hazard” materials. Before the accident in East Palestine, President Biden’s administration had made no attempt to restore that rule. Now, in the face of growing criticism, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is finally calling for both stricter regulations and harsher penalties for safety violations. The Department of Transportation might begin by reinstating the 2015 rule and putting vinyl chloride on the list of high-hazard materials that would require updated brakes.

Norfolk Southern has promised to support East Palestine as it recovers from the accident and has already provided more than a million dollars for residents and businesses affected by the evacuation orders. The company, which now faces multiple lawsuits, claims it’s “not going anywhere,” though it decided to skip a town-hall meeting where community members gathered to ask questions about their safety.

Fortunately, no one was injured in either the derailment or the subsequent explosion, but the long-term effects of the accident on the local environment will depend on the speed and thoroughness of the cleanup. So far, the damage appears limited; tests of more than five hundred homes have not revealed any signs of dioxins or other toxic chemicals. Still, without improved regulation, the next derailment—and there will be another—could have much worse consequences. The railroad industry has proved incapable of policing itself, and unworthy of public trust. The federal government must force it to prioritize safety over profits.

Isabella Simon is the managing editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the March 2023 issue: View Contents
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