Aerial view of the train derailment wreckage in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 5, 2023. (NTSB).
By Justin Sweitzer
The derailment of a train near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border on Feb. 3 did more than release chemicals and contaminants into communities – it unleashed fear, as well.
In the weeks since the crash, government officials and residents alike have upped the pressure on Norfolk Southern, the railroad company that owns the train and the stretch of tracks where the derailment took place.
The derailment resulted in multiple fires, and the presence of chemicals in the train later forced Norfolk Southern to vent multiple train cars, releasing dangerous chemicals into the air to prevent an explosion that threatened to inundate the immediate area with shrapnel and fumes.
In the aftermath of what Norfolk Southern described as a “controlled release” of the vinyl chloride gas, the fears of Ohio and Pennsylvania residents living near ground zero have intensified – and those caught in the aftermath are pleading with Norfolk Southern, government officials and pretty much anyone else who will listen – to not just hear their concerns, but act on them.
“My home is approximately 200 feet from the Norfolk Southern rail line, which is approximately 1,800 feet from the actual point of derailment,” said Lonnie Miller, an East Palestine, Ohio resident who testified at a hearing in Pennsylvania. “On Friday, Feb. 3 at approximately 8:55 (a.m.), our lives became a living nightmare.”
Describing flames and clouds of smoke coming from the site of the derailment, Miller said: “It was the scene from a disaster movie that you don’t want to live in.”
Miller told lawmakers that many residents in East Palestine live paycheck-to-paycheck, which made it difficult when the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania asked residents within a one-mile by two-mile radius to evacuate.
On Pennsylvania’s side of the border, residents of Darlington, which is roughly seven miles from East Palestine, shared similar concerns about their health and the future of their community with the Senate committee, where they voiced concerns about air quality, water contamination – and a drop in the value of their properties.
Jonathan Kent described the scene following the derailment as “H.G. Wells War of the Worlds stuff,” with helicopters, law enforcement and local leaders flooding the region. Another Darlington resident, Amanda Kemmer, said she kept her children home and opted not to evacuate – a decision she later came to regret.
Speaking of the chemical release, Kemmer told the committee: “You just saw this big black cloud, this big, ominous cloud coming out from over East Palestine and it just came towards us and up over our house until the whole sky was black.”
“By the end of the evening everyone had a headache and didn’t feel well and was sick to their stomach,” Kemmer said, fighting back tears. “At that point, I knew I made the wrong decision to stay.”
Other residents who attended the hearing reported myriad health issues in the days following the crash, including headaches, a dry cough, a lingering chemical smell inside the nose, rashes and sinus congestion, among other symptoms.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, short-term exposure to vinyl chloride through the air can cause dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, and irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract. It’s also known to cause liver damage and can increase the risk of a rare form of liver cancer, per the EPA.
The agency has ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for the cleanup and decontamination efforts, and if the company fails to comply with the work outlined in the order, it could be forced to pay triple damages to the EPA.
You can be assured that Pennsylvania will hold Norfolk Southern accountable for any and all impacts to our commonwealth.
– Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro
Contamination of soil near the derailment site exists, as well as some water sources in the area, according to the EPA. And while the EPA has assured people in the area that air quality in the East Palestine area “remains normal according to air monitoring data,” health risks from the release of vinyl chloride and the potential water contamination resulting from it is still a cause for concern, said Myron Arnowitt, the Pennsylvania state director for Clean Water Action.
“I don’t really know in what language you can call it a controlled release, because it was very uncontrolled,” Arnowitt said in an interview. “We don’t know exactly where the chemicals went with precision.”
Arnowitt added that streams contaminated from the burning of vinyl chloride gas could already be a source of air pollution for those living in the area. “The streams themselves are clearly an air source of chemical contamination for local residents … because the chemicals involved, they’re gassing off from the stream and that’s a clear indication that the water was contaminated.”
Government officials and residents alike have criticized Norfolk Southern’s response efforts in the weeks following the crash, and are pressing the company to do more to help affected residents in both Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Led by GOP state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the state Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee voted to subpoena Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw after Shaw didn’t show up to testify at the February hearing in Beaver County.
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