Norfolk Southern Train Derailment: Where Inaction in Crisis Created Further Crisis

By CHHS Extern Rebecca Wells

On February 3, 2023 thirty-eight cars of a Norfolk Southern train went off track in East Palestine, Ohio, at least ten of which contained hazardous and combustible liquids, creating concern over the potential for health and environmental crises. These chemicals included the colorless and flammable butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride, which are typically used for the industrial production of polymers.

The derailment caused a multi-day fire in the area. Residents within a 2-mile zone were required to evacuate by a mandatory evacuation order concern of the toxicity and flammability of the cargo. An estimated 3,500 fish have been killed by the chemical release. Cleanup crews are continuing to excavate a “grossly contaminated” 1,000-foot area around the train tracks. Visible plumes of contaminants floated down waterways along the Ohio River. The Ohio River courses through or borders Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia and supplies drinking water for over 5 million Americans. At the time of publishing, those contaminants appear to have been contained and have not polluted the Ohio River itself.

The evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday, February 8, and since then residents have reported a burning sensation in their eyes, animals falling ill, and a strong odor lingering in town.

Immediately following the derailment, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) sent letters to the Ohio state government and federal government asking for an emergency declaration. Emergency declarations allow governments to act faster and provide more funding than they would be able to do otherwise. At the federal level, the president may make an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act, which provides two routes for receiving federal support: (1) emergency declarations and (2) major disaster declarations. Emergency declarations trigger aid that protects property, public health, and safety. The objective of these funds is to lesson or avert threat of an incident becoming a catastrophic event. Because of this, emergency declarations can be made before the event in question occurs. In contrast, major disaster declarations are issued after catastrophes occur, and give broader authority for federal agencies to provide supplemental assistance to help communities recover from the event. Requests must be submitted by Governors and the decision to approve a request rests solely with the President.

Despite asking for emergency declarations and swift action, the residents of East Palestine have been met with inaction and mixed messages. On the public health and environmental front, while the Ohio Health Director, Bruce Vanderhoff, urges residents of East Palestine to drink bottled water, messaging from other state and federal agencies has been inconsistent. On February 14, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a statement finding, “air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment.” However, just a few days prior, the EPA sent a letter outlining Northfolk’s potential liability. In that letter they found that there were more chemicals dumped in the river than initial evaluations detected, including vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, and butyl acrylate. Notably, the EPA has set the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) of vinyl chloride at zero, meaning the only level at which there is no known or expected health risk is none.

Messaging on the transportation front has been lacking as well. After initially being largely absent in the conversation, Pete Buttigieg has since reflected that he could have “spoken sooner” about the derailment and its devastating impacts on human and environmental health.

On February 21, the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up their toxic spill, cautioning of fines and potential liability. On Thursday, February 23, the National Transportation Safety Board released their preliminary report, twenty days after the initial derailment. Chair of the Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, called the derailment, “100% preventable,” citing a failure to detect an overheating car as a cause of the derailment, without assigning full liability to Norfolk Southern. The NTSB’s report marks a transition from identifying the crisis into recovering from it.

In addition to being preventable, the derailment was, unfortunately, foreseeable. While the federal government has urged Norfolk Southern to act and change their behavior, the government itself played a role in creating this disaster. During the Trump administration, several guidelines for railways were relaxed, including inspection and brake requirements. The most recent investigations into the derailment indicate that the train while undetected by sensors, the train overheated and its wheel bearings broke after the crew engaged the brakes. In the months preceding the derailment, rail workers across the country went on strike, demanding safer working conditions. President Biden signed a bill in December, 2022 making strikes by rail workers illegal.

Several lessons can be learned from this tragedy. Good emergency planning requires that the needs and perspectives of all impacted persons are considered, not just administrators.

The derailment in East Palestine also demonstrates how difficult disaster recovery can be when appropriate preventative measures are not taken. Since the East Palestine derailment, a second Norfolk Southern train has derailed in Ohio. A third train derailed in Alabama, just hours before the C.E.O. of Norfolk Southern testified before Congress regarding his company’s liability and safety protocols. A failure to act proactively has created a scenario while these derailments will be expected until Congress acts to strengthen safety requirements for railroad and railway companies.