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Ohio Train Derailment Sparks Fears Among Small Town Residents About Toxic Substances.

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Ohio train derailment sparks fears among small town residents about toxic substances

2024-04-03 09:33:12

Ohio train derailment carrying vinyl chloride raises pollution and health concerns

Twelve days after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in the small Ohio town of East Palestine, anxious residents are still demanding answers.

"It's very dramatic right now," said James Figley, who lives just a few blocks away from the incident. "The whole town is in turmoil."

63-year-old Figley is a graphic designer. On the evening of February 3, he was sitting on the sofa when he suddenly heard a terrible and harsh metal sound.He and his wife got into the car to check and discovered a hellish scene.

"There was a series of explosions that went on and on and the smells got progressively more horrific," Figley said.

 "Have you ever burned plastic in your backyard and (there was) black smoke? That's it," he said.  "It was black, completely black. You could tell it was a chemical smell. It burned your eyes. If you were facing the wind, it could get really bad."

 The incident sparked a blaze that panicked residents who lived blocks away.


Smoke billowed from a derailed freight train carrying hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio.

 Days later, a toxic plume of smoke appeared over the town as officials scrambled to burn off a dangerous chemical called vinyl chloride before it exploded.

 Over the next few days, dead fish appeared in the stream. Officials later confirmed the number ran into the thousands. Neighboring residents told local media that their chickens died suddenly, foxes panicked and other pets became ill. Residents complained of headaches, burning eyes and sore throats.

 Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Wednesday that while the town's air quality is safe, residents near the site of a toxic spill should drink bottled water as a precaution. State and federal officials promised residents they were clearing contaminated soil from the site and that air and municipal water quality were now back to normal.

 The stark discrepancy between what some residents are telling us and the promises officials continue to issue has led to chaos and fear in eastern Palestine. Meanwhile, environmental and health experts have raised questions about whether the site is truly safe. Some social media users said that although government officials provided frequent updates on the situation and expressed anger at the railway company, officials were not telling residents the truth.

 Some locals welcomed the extra oversight.  “There’s so much we don’t know,” Figley said.

 U.S. officials estimate that 3,500 fish from 12 different species died in nearby rivers as a result of the derailment.

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 Officials have provided some details about the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train en route to Pennsylvania.

 DeWine said at a press conference on Tuesday that the train had about 150 cars, and 50 of them derailed. About 10 of them contained potentially toxic substances.

 The National Transportation Safety Board has not determined the exact cause of the derailment, but the department said it may have been related to a mechanical issue with one of the axles.

 Substances carried by trains include vinyl chloride, a colorless and harmful gas used in the manufacture of PVC plastic and vinyl products.

 Vinyl chloride is also a carcinogen. Acute exposure to the chemical can cause dizziness, drowsiness and headaches, while long-term exposure can cause liver damage and a rare form of liver cancer.


On February 6, after evacuating the immediate area, officials conducted a controlled burn of vinyl chloride. DeWine said federal, state and railroad experts concluded it was much safer than letting the material explode and send debris flying across the town, which he called the lesser of two evils.

 The controlled burn produced apocalyptic smoke over eastern Palestine. The images were widely circulated on social media, with many shocked readers comparing them to a disaster movie.

 Days later, Gov. DeWine, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and Norfolk Southern announced the flaring was successful and residents were allowed to return once officials deemed it safe.

 "For us, when they said it was settled, we decided we could come back," said East Palestine resident John Myers, who lives with his family in a house near the derailment site.

 He said he didn't experience any negative side effects.  "The air smells like always," he said.

 On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it had not detected any significant levels of harmful substances in the air. The department said it has inspected nearly 400 homes so far and no chemicals have been detected, but it is continuing to inspect more homes in the area and conduct air quality monitoring.

 After the accident, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did find traces of chemicals in nearby water samples, including the Ohio River. The agency said contaminated water had entered storm drains. Ohio officials said they would test residents' water supplies or drill new wells if needed.

 On Wednesday, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency assured residents that wells in the local water system tested free of chemicals from the derailment and that municipal water was safe to drink.

Too much distrust and doubt


Residents have been concerned about the impact toxic chemicals could have on their health. (Pictured here is a photo of a sign outside a business in East Palestine that reads "Pray for East Palestine and our future.")

 To some, the shocking images of toxic smog seemed at odds with the authorities' recent all-clear move to east Palestine.

 Social media users on Twitter and TikTok in particular have been following reports of injured animals and footage of burning vinyl chloride. They are demanding more answers from officials.

 After people posted videos of the dead fish to social media, officials admitted the phenomenon was real. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said about 3,500 fish of 12 different species died in the roughly 7.5-mile stream south of East Palestine.

 However, officials said they have received no reports of derailments or chemical flaring directly causing the death of livestock or other land animals.

 More than a week after the chemicals burned, residents in the neighborhood complained of headaches and nausea, according to The Washington Post, The New Republic and local media.

 Environmental experts told the BBC they were concerned about the government's decision to allow people to return to east Palestine so soon after the accident and the controlled burning.

 “Clearly state and local regulators are giving people the green light to go home too quickly,” said David Masur, executive director of the Penn Environment Research & Policy Center.

 "It creates a lot of distrust and doubt among the public about the credibility of these institutions, and that's a problem," he said.

 In addition to vinyl chloride, several other substances on trains can form dangerous compounds when burned, such as dioxins, said Peter DeCarlo, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies air pollution.

 "As an atmospheric chemist, this is something I really, really, really want to avoid." He added that he hoped the environmental protection department would release more detailed data on air quality.

 East Palestine residents have filed at least four class-action lawsuits against Norfolk Southern Railroad, claiming they were exposed to toxic substances and suffered "severe emotional distress" as a result of the derailment.

 "A lot of our clients are really thinking about ... possibly moving out of the area," Hunter Miller said. He is the lawyer representing residents of East Palestine in a class action lawsuit against the railway company.

 "This should be their safe haven and their happy place, their home," Miller said.  "Now they feel like their home has been infiltrated and are no longer so sure it's a safe haven."

 On Tuesday, a reporter asked DeWine if he himself would feel safe returning home if he lived in East Palestine.

 "I'm going to be vigilant and concerned," DeWine said.  "But I think I might go back to my house."