How Worried Should We Be About Ohio's MurderTrain Crash? For Starters, Don't Call It A MurderTrain
Citizens of East Palestine, Ohio, have been returning to their homes this week, following the February 3 derailment of 50 freight cars of a 150-car Norfolk Southern train. Twenty of the cars were carrying hazardous chemicals, including butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride, the last of which is a precursor in the making of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the ubiquitous plastic used in water pipes, wiring insulation, and kink wear (it's nice and shiny).
[Update/clarification: The National Transportation Safety Board specified that while 20 cars in the train were carrying hazardous chemicals, 11 of those cars derailed, and nine stayed on the tracks]
Authorities feared an explosion of the toxic, flammable gases and other liquids on the train, so three days after the derailment, after ordering evacuations, crews did a controlled release of vinyl chloride from five tank cars, directing the liquid into a trench and burning it off.
The burnoff, while far better than the risk of an explosion sending everything into the air, nonetheless created some delightful chemical stew components, the AP reported:
Officials warned the controlled burn would send phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the air. Phosgene is a highly toxic gas that can cause vomiting and breathing trouble and was used as a weapon in World War I.
Scott Deutsch of Norfolk Southern Railway earlier said doing this during the daytime would allow the fumes to disperse more quickly and prevent the rail cars from exploding and sending shrapnel and other debris from flying through the neighborhood.
“We can’t control where that goes,” he said.
The process involves using a small charge to blow a hole in the cars, allowing the material to go into a trench and burning it off before it’s released in the air, he said. The crews handling the controlled release have done this safely before, Deutsch said.
Did we mention that some area residents had last year been extras in the movie adaptation of Don DeLillo's 1985 novel White Noise? The plot involves a family evacuating a Midwest college town after a train crash causes an "airborne toxic event," then trying to make sense of their lives after returning home. One family who'd been in the movie — and directed to look "forlorn and downtrodden" during the fictional evacuation — told CNN they won't be re-watching the movie for quite some time, after having evacuated for real from East Palestine. Life is full of little ironies like that.
The EPA has been monitoring air both outside and inside homes, and reported yesterday that "To date, no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified for the completed screened homes," with 181 homes remaining to be tested; the agency also said that its "network of air monitoring stations throughout the East Palestine area did not detect anything above the action level."
The evacuation order was lifted last Wednesday, and some residents who have returned home report they're experiencing burning eyes, irritated throats, and strong odors. On Sunday, the EPA advised that Norfolk Southern had released a more complete list of the cargo being carried on the train cars that derailed. ABC News reports that the list included additional toxic chemicals that were released into the air and soil near the crash, but notes that experts said the nasties in the tank cars shouldn't pose a threat because the area was evacuated. Following the controlled burn,
the only risk of coming in contact with the toxins was if they were embedded in the soil, which then had to be dug out, Kevin Crist, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of Ohio University’s Air Quality Center, told ABC News last week.
The EPA also noted that residents of areas as far as "tens of miles away" may smell odors following the controlled burn, but that many byproducts of the burn "have a low odor threshold. This means people may smell these contaminants at levels much lower than what is considered hazardous." The agency urged people experiencing symptoms to check in with their doctor to be on the safe side.
Also too, NBC News reports,
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said the chemical spill resulting from the derailment had killed an estimated 3,500 small fish across 7½ miles of streams as of Wednesday [February 8].
As for area drinking water, the New York Times reports,
The East Palestine Water Treatment Plant said it had not seen adverse effects. Norfolk Southern said in a statement that its own experts and contractors were testing water from private wells, although those homeowners were encouraged to use bottled water.
In addition, the Times adds,
The West Virginia subsidiary of American Water, which provides water services in 24 states, said on Feb. 12 that it had not detected any changes in the water at its Ohio River intake site. But it installed a secondary intake on the Guyandotte River in case an alternate source was needed. The subsidiary, which serves more than half a million people, said it also enhanced its treatment processes.
The Columbus Dispatch also reports that the site of the derailment isn't near any watersheds, according to a spokesperson for Columbus's department of public utilities, and that nothing unusual has turned up in regular water monitoring. If any vinyl chloride were detected, the city's water plants can remove it "using powder-activated carbon," so that's reassuring as well.
All in all, it looks like Ohio dodged a toxic bullet, although there's always the next oil or chemical train wreck to worry about, too. 2021's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law included $66 billion for freight and passenger rail, including measures for railroad safety, so ... let's spend that where it's needed, please.
[NBC News / AP / NPR / EPA / ABC News / NYT / Columbus Dispatch / Mother Jones /CNN]
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