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.”