RAIL SAFETYOhio Chemical Spill Draws Focus on Railroad Dangers

By Alistair Walsh

Published 24 February 2023

The U.S. has one of the most extensive rail networks in the world, but diminishing safety standards puts people and the environment at risk. The latest accident has drawn sharp focus onto the safety standards of the highly profitable freight rail industry and its prolific lobbying against regulation.

When a freight train laden with hazardous chemicals derailed in eastern Ohio, a state in the Midwestern region of the United States, Heather Hulton Vantassel sprang into action.

She is one of the Ohio River’s local guardians and advocates, and executive director of the Three Rivers Waterkeeper non-profit. This is the second derailment she has had to deal with since 2021. And this time, the damage is even worse.

We know that this community is experiencing physical ailments, there’s rashes, there’s nausea, there’s diarrhea, there’s headaches, aquatic life are dying,” she told DW. “We can see the contamination, we can smell the contamination, we can see it on the analytical results.”

The damage has reignited safety concerns in the lucrative freight industry, and has environmental activists blaming the country’s reliance on petrochemicals.

What Happened in the Accident?
Late on February 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in the small village of East Palestine, before catching fire. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 20 of its 150 carriages were carrying hazardous materials including vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, which were released into the surrounding environment.

In an attempt to neutralize some of the chemicals and stop potential explosions, authorities deliberately punctured and set fire to five wagons containing vinyl chloride, releasing vast plumes of smoke into the atmosphere.

A cocktail of chemicals flowed into nearby creeks, killing tens of thousands of fish in a 5-mile radius, and into the important Ohio River. Since then, locals have reported strong chemical smells, visible chemical pollution and poor health.

Authorities have repeatedly told the thousands of residents who were evacuated from the area that it is now safe return, with the drinking water supplies and air quality safe.

But this only tells part of the story, Hulton Vantassel said. She has been auditing data collected by the Ohio state EPA, which she says shows worryingly high levels of contamination from vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate and various hydrocarbons in the surface water, which can eventually feed into the many wells and aquifers in the area.

The surface water is highly contaminated in certain areas. And that is really problematic because eventually that water has to go somewhere, that those chemicals have to go somewhere.”

Is U.S. Rail Transport Safe?
The incident has drawn sharp focus onto the safety standards of the highly profitable freight rail industry and its prolific lobbying against regulation.