The train derailment disaster in Ohio

Black smoke above East Palestine, Ohio.
Black smoke above East Palestine, Ohio. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File

On Feb. 3, a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Three days later, over concerns that some of the cars could explode, there was a controlled burn of their contents. Local residents say they are now suffering from health ailments, including lingering coughs and chest pain, and several lawsuits have been filed against the train's operator, Norfolk Southern. Here's everything you need to know:

What occurred on Feb. 3?

A 150-car train, operated by Norfolk Southern, was headed from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, when 38 cars derailed in East Palestine, a small town 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. A fire broke out, which damaged an additional 12 cars. The train was carrying different chemicals, including vinyl chloride, a toxic flammable gas used to make PVC plastic and vinyl products. In the wake of the derailment, evacuations were ordered in East Palestine, as well as across the border in Pennsylvania.

What caused the derailment?

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident, and released a preliminary report on Feb. 23. The NTSB said it found that over the course of 30 miles, a wheel bearing's temperature increased by 215 degrees. Once in East Palestine, it reached the threshold Norfolk Southern set for an alarm to go off, and an engineer slowed the train down. When the crew spotted smoke and fire, dispatch was notified of a possible derailment. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said there is "no evidence that the crew did anything wrong," but the derailment was "100 percent preventable." The NTSB "has one goal," she added, "and that is safety, and ensuring that this never happens again."

On March 1, a bipartisan group of senators proposed rail safety legislation mandating that hot bearing detectors be placed every 10 miles on tracks used to move hazardous materials, requiring trained two-person crews on every train, and increasing the maximum fine the Department of Transportation can issue for safety violations. "It shouldn't take a massive railroad disaster for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve — not corporations like Norfolk Southern," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), one of the bill's sponsors, said in a statement. Rail lobbyists have been fighting "for years to protect their profits," he added, and these safety measures "will finally hold big railroad companies accountable, make our railroads and the towns along them safer, and prevent future tragedies, so no community has to suffer like East Palestine again."

What chemicals were on the train?

About 20 of the cars contained hazardous materials, the Environmental Protection Agency said on Feb. 10, with five holding vinyl chloride. Other chemicals being carried on the train include butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, and ethylene glycol monobutyl.

Shipment data shows that more than 700,000 pounds of vinyl chloride on the train were from the OxyVinyls chemical plant in La Porte, Texas, headed to Pedricktown, New Jersey, The New York Times reports. Vinyl chloride is a carcinogen, and long-term exposure can lead to liver damage, and in some cases, a rare form of liver cancer, the EPA said.

Burning vinyl chloride releases hydrogen chloride, which can irritate the eyes, throat, skin, and nose, and phosgene, which can cause vomiting, eye irritation, and a burning throat. Breathing in vinyl chloride "under heavy concentrations .... is really bad for you," Prof. Kevin Crist, director of Ohio University's Air Quality Center, told ABC News. "It's like an acid mist. It's not something that you want to be around in high concentrations."

What happened in the days after the derailment?

The cars containing vinyl chloride were at risk of exploding, which would have caused "deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes," Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's (R) office said in a statement. On Feb. 6, under DeWine's authorization, crews began the controlled release of the chemicals, which involved burning the material. Thick black smoke filled the air during this operation, and all residents within a one-mile radius of the site were ordered to stay away because of the "grave danger" of inhaling the fumes. On Feb. 8, residents were able to return to their homes, and many reported still smelling the chemicals in the air and experiencing headaches, watery eyes, and burning sensations in their throats.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said on Feb. 23 that the derailment potentially killed more than 43,000 fish, crustaceans, and amphibians in nearby streams. The deaths appeared to be instantaneous, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Mary Mertz said, and there haven't been any signs of "fish in distress since that time." While state officials said they haven't linked any land-dwelling animal deaths on the derailment, several local residents have said their pets, including cats, birds, and chickens, have fallen ill or died unexpectedly after the controlled release of the chemicals.

About 10 miles away from East Palestine, in the town of North Lima, resident Amanda Breshears told WKBN in the wake of the derailment, several of her chickens died. "My video camera footage shows my chickens were perfectly fine before they started this burn, and as soon as they started the burn, my chickens slowed down and they died," she said during a Feb. 7 interview. "If it can do this to chickens in one night, imagine what it's going to do to us in 20 years."

How might this disaster affect the air, soil, and water in the area?

The EPA said substances were released into the air, soil, and surface waters, and it is monitoring pollution levels and collecting samples. In a letter sent to Norfolk Southern on Feb. 10, the agency wrote that "materials released during the incident were observed and detected in samples from Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek, and the Ohio River," and were also seen "entering storm drains." By the end of February, the agency had tested the air inside about 600 East Palestine homes for vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride, and said it did not detect "any levels of concern." A group of researchers from Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon University also measured air quality in East Palestine on Feb. 20 and 21, and many of the measurements were the same as the EPA's, Nature reports. These scientists did find higher levels of the chemical irritant acrolein, which affects the skin, eyes, and respiratory system.

More assessments were ordered on March 2, when the EPA instructed Norfolk Southern to test in East Palestine for dioxins, which are environmental pollutants produced via combustion processes. They can be highly toxic and cause cancer and developmental and reproductive problems, and most human exposure is through meat, dairy products, fish, and shellfish, the EPA says.

Online, false claims about the derailment started to spread in the days after the incident, with the nonprofit Reset, which studies social media's impact on democracy, sharing with The Associated Press that anonymous pro-Russian accounts on Twitter took advantage of the situation by posting various misleading claims and anti-American propaganda. Some people stated, falsely, that scientists heading to East Palestine were killed in a plane crash, and others shared unverified maps that purported to show pollution levels. These "fear-mongering posts ... preyed on legitimate concerns about pollution and health effects," AP writes.

Is it safe for East Palestine residents to drink the water?

The Ohio EPA says no contaminants have been detected in the five wells that are part of the city's water system, and carbon filters will be installed by the local water treatment facility. While in East Palestine on Feb. 21, DeWine and EPA Administrator Michael Regan drank tap water to show it is safe, but consumer advocate Erin Brockovich told MSNBC this only means "in that moment, that condition could have been safe, but that's not going to be how it's always going to be. We're going to have to deal with how all these chemicals migrate through the water, where they hit the wells. So there's so much more to this to ensure not only in a moment, but for the future, these people, their water, and their health are not being jeopardized." She held a town hall in East Palestine on Feb. 24, alongside attorney Mikal Watts, who told the audience that derailments in the U.S. are "a shockingly dangerous phenomenon." He also shared that his law firm, Watts Guerra LLP, analyzed federal data and found that in the last 20 years, Norfolk Southern reported 3,397 events that could be classified as a derailment, the Cincinnati Enquirer reports.

How are cleanup efforts going?

As of April 25, at least 33,905 tons of contaminated soil and 13.2 million gallons of liquid wastewater have been removed from the site, the EPA said. The EPA took control of the cleanup on Feb. 21, and ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for all costs associated with the effort. The company must also reimburse the EPA for cleaning services offered to residents and businesses. "Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess that they created and the trauma that they inflicted on this community," Regan said while visiting East Palestine. "I know this order cannot undo the nightmare that families in this town have been living with, but it will begin to deliver much-needed justice for the pain that Norfolk Southern has caused."

What could happen to Norfolk Southern?

On March 7, the NTSB announced it has started a special investigation into Norfolk Southern's "safety culture." Since December 2021, the company has reported five major accidents, including the East Palestine derailment. Three of the incidents resulted in fatalities, with one taking place on March 7 just a few hours before the NTSB announcement, when a Norfolk Southern conductor in Ohio was killed when his train was hit by a dump truck at a crossing. Because there have been so many significant incidents recently, the NTSB said it is urging Norfolk Southern to take "immediate action ... to review and assess its safety practices, with the input of employees and others, and implement necessary changes to improve safety."

Lawsuits have been filed against Norfolk Southern by individuals and businesses in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the state of Ohio, and Pennsylvania's Bucks County Employees Retirement System, which accused Norfolk Southern of embracing a "culture of increased risk-taking" that made it vulnerable to more train derailments. The lawsuit seeks damages for shareholders between Oct. 28, 2020 and March 3, 2023.

In late April, Norfolk Southern revealed that the derailment is estimated to cost the company at least $387 million, due to the cleanup, legal expenses, monetary assistance for East Palestine residents, and pending settlements. The company's shares also dropped, with first-quarter earnings-per-share down 30 percent compared to the first quarter of 2022.

What might change because of this derailment?

Under current regulations, the derailed train wasn't considered a "high-hazard material train," and Norfolk Southern did not have to let Ohio officials know about the contents of its cars. Since the incident, DeWine has asked Congress to reconsider how high-hazardous material trains are classified, Axios reports.

Ron Kaminkow, an Amtrak locomotive engineer, former Norfolk Southern freight engineer, and secretary for the Railroad Workers United labor group, told The Guardian that over the last several years, U.S. rail companies have been putting profits above all else and cutting work crews. This isn't safe, he stated, and "the Palestine wreck is the tip of the iceberg and a red flag. If something is not done, then it's going to get worse, and the next derailment could be cataclysmic."

One major concern is an accident involving liquified natural gas, or LNG. In 2020, the National Transportation Safety Board, fire departments, and unions all opposed a rule passed by the Department of Transportation allowing LNG to be shipped on trains without any additional safety regulations. Shipping LNG via rail is "an extremely dangerous practice," Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Kimberly Ong told The Guardian, as 22 train tank cars carrying LNG hold the equivalent amount of energy as the Hiroshima bomb, and an LNG fire is extremely hard to contain. Under President Biden, the Transportation Department has proposed suspending this LNG rule, but there have been delays and Ong said she doesn't know if "this is a priority for DoT."

Updated May 2, 2023: This piece has been updated throughout to reflect recent developments. 

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