Toxic train wreck renews call for better brakes on cancer-causing chemical carriers

The recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

The recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio has been a continuing story of massive issues, from the chemical-laden freight that was turned over to the state of the train itself.

The doomed train, consisting of more than 150 cars, 9,300 feet in length, and 18,000 tons, was filled with toxic chemicals which spilled on February 3 and then exploded.

Lawsuits against Norfolk Southern are piling up nearly two weeks after a train derailed in eastern Ohio, releasing those toxic chemicals and forcing thousands of locals to evacuate.

“Norfolk Southern discharged more cancer-causing Vinyl Chloride into the environment in the course of a week than all industrial emitters combined did in the course of a year,” according to a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in Ohio. “From chemicals that cause nausea and vomiting to a substance responsible for the majority of chemical warfare deaths during World War I, the people of East Palestine and the surrounding communities are facing an unprecedented array of threats to their health.”

Attorneys said that the company chose to burn the vinyl chloride, turning it into a highly toxic gas, rather than disposing of it safely.

As a public health and environmental disaster unfolds following the disastrous explosion of the toxic-chemical cargo train, advocacy groups renewed their challenge to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) 2018 repeal of a regulation requiring electronic brake systems for trains carrying hazardous and flammable material.

In 2018, the federal agencies charged with regulating hazardous materials on trains actually removed safety rules requiring modern braking systems.

But they failed to conduct mandated safety tests, used inaccurately low estimates of accidents and risks, and restricted public participation.

Earthjustice appealed the rule on behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Riverkeeper, Washington Conservation Action, and Stand, but the agencies failed to respond, siding with companies like Norfolk Southern, who lobbied against more stringent safety requirements. 

The DOT’s silence has meant more explosive tank cars with “Civil War-era braking systems” traveling through towns and neighborhoods.

“It should not take another exploding train to get DOT’s attention,” said Earthjustice Attorney Kristen Boyles. “Communities can’t keep trains out, can’t get safety measures, can’t know what trains are carrying, and yet are left with the human health and environmental problems when there’s an accident.”

Earthjustice’s appeal focused on trains carrying large amounts of volatile crude oil in long unit trains, and it is not clear whether the Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals in Ohio would have been covered by DOT’s repealed brake system requirement. What is clear, however, is that the agency has failed to require up-to-date, modern brake systems for most trains carrying explosively toxic materials.

The long-term impacts of the Feb. 3 toxic chemical explosions on people’s health are yet unknown, but residents have reported experiencing nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, and headaches.

It has also been confirmed that the hazardous chemicals have spilled into the Ohio River, which covers 14 states and provides drinking water to more than 5 million people.

The state confirmed the contaminated waterways have led to the deaths of at least 3,500 fish.

Environmental groups have called on Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to declare a state of emergency and formally ask President Joe Biden for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid so that affected residents can get immediate help.

Following the explosions, state officials ordered residents living within a mile of the site to evacuate immediately, said River Valley Organizing Development Director Emily Wright, who lives a few miles from the disaster site. Many East Palestine community members sheltered in a local high school as they had nowhere else to go. Residents in other areas in Ohio surrounding the site and in Beaver County, Pennsylvania were also told to evacuate.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the water, air, and soil surrounding the disaster site have been contaminated by hazardous and carcinogenic petrochemical derivatives used in factories to make paint, adhesives, plastics, and more.

Despite the EPA’s greenlight for residents to return home a week after the explosions, the agency cannot say what kind of health impact this amount of exposure to these hazardous chemicals will have on people.

Petrochemicals are toxic chemicals derived from oil and gas that are used to make a variety of substances, including plastics. As the U.S. shifts to clean energy, fossil fuel companies are turning to petrochemicals to protect their profits. EPA must adopt stronger protections from these chemicals across their life cycles — including how they are transported — to protect against chemical disasters, as well as the everyday exposures, that are poisoning communities.

Earthjustice is representing Stand, Waterkeeper Alliance, Riverkeeper, Puget Soundkeeper, Washington Conservation Action, and the Sierra Club.

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