East Palestine residents owed transparency after trail derailment

Misheel Bayasgalan, Copy Editor

On Feb. 3, an eastbound Norfolk Southern Corp. freight train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio

About 50 rail cars, including 11 carrying hazardous materials, were derailed, causing toxic chemicals to be released and contaminate the nearby Sulphur run and Leslie run streams. 

When hazardous materials are involved, there may be a need for evacuations, shelter-in-place orders or other protective measures. The public has a right to know about these risks and what steps are being taken to address them.

Government transparency is crucial in cases of train derailments or other incidents involving hazardous materials. However, the public isn’t just owed accountability from the government, but also from the corporation which commissioned the freight train: Norfolk Southern. 

“I feel the entire city, and I feel our leaders, everybody, is letting us down,” East Palestine homeowner Aaron Bragg said at a town hall held on Feb. 15.

Vinyl chloride, one of the hazardous materials being carried onboard, is carcinogenic. It can cause shortness of breath, headaches and dizziness when inhaled. Long-term exposure to the chemical has been linked to liver damage and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The burning of vinyl chloride also releases hydrogen chloride and phosgene, which were used as chemical weapons during World War I, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the CDC

“We should know when we have trains carrying hazardous material that are going through the state of Ohio,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said at a press conference on Feb. 14. 

If local officials had been informed of the contents of the train, they could’ve been more prepared to handle the situation which ultimately unfolded. 

Officials had to carry out a “controlled explosion of five train cars containing vinyl chloride due to increasing temperatures within the containers. Left alone, the resulting explosion might’ve been much more catastrophic. 

On Feb. 20, Norfolk Southern stated that 15,000 pounds of soil and 1.1 million gallons of water had been removed from the area of contamination. In a press release, however, the company failed to elaborate on which of the hazardous materials were found in the water and soil.  

After monitoring air quality in 500 homes and outdoors, the EPA found no detection of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride. 

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency reported “very low levels” of butyl acrylate and ethyl hexyl acrylate were found in the water samples from the municipal waters. 

However, the agency is also urging people with private wells to have their waters tested and drink bottled water in the meantime. So far, the EPA has collected samples from 28 wells. 

Despite these assurances from government agencies, which report safe air and water quality, many residents of East Palestine are experiencing headaches, dizziness and rashes. 

“Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or in the water?” one resident exclaimed at the same town hall meeting attended by Bragg. 

The findings from regulatory monitoring do not match the experiences of those living in the area. Residents were particularly frustrated by the lack of transparency and communication from public officials and Norfolk Southern in the early days following the derailment.

Most of the train’s freight contained non-hazardous materials. Thus, Norfolk Southern was not under a legal obligation to notify Ohio officials of the train’s hazardous contents.

DeWine urged Congress to consider changes to the notification requirements regarding train cargo on Feb. 14. 

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw a letter demanding more responsibility and safety regulations. 

“You have previously indicated to me that you are committed to meeting your responsibilities to this community, but it is clear that area residents are not satisfied with the information, presence, and support they are getting from Norfolk Southern in the aftermath and recovery,” Buttigieg wrote in the letter.

Transparency helps to build trust between the public and a corporation. If Norfolk Southern were to take accountability for what happened during the train derailment and what actions are being taken to resolve it, the harm caused by this catastrophe could’ve been heavily mitigated.