Savannah Brooks ’26
On February 3, 2023, thirty-eight Norfolk Southern freight train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The cars carried hazardous materials that released chemical compounds such as vinyl chloride (used to make plastics), butyl acrylate (can cause breathing difficulties and skin irritation), ethylhexyl acrylate (used to make paints and plastics), and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether (used to make paints and varnish) into the environment. This release occurred during a controlled burn ordered by Ohio officials after the railcars had already been burning for two days. The burn was controversial; Democrats have accused Republican Governor of Ohio Mike DeWine and Norfolk Southern of acting hastily because they did not consider other options that may have been more environmentally conscious. The day after the incident, residents within one mile of the derailment were forced to evacuate the area. The next day, the evacuation radius spread to two miles. Norfolk Southern has since granted financial aid to local residents and businesses.
After the controlled burn released a large black plume of smoke into the sky, residents began to worry about the possible health effects of the contaminants. However, on February 8, local officials released the evacuation mandate when they deemed the air and water samples safe. Two days later, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that they found traces of vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether in a nearby creek, but they maintained that the air and water were safe for residents.
Despite the assurance of local and state officials, several East Palestine residents have reported feeling sick after staying in the area, and, more recently, cleanup workers have reported sickness. Symptoms tend to include pain when breathing, irritation of the eyes and skin, nausea, and headaches. Several have also reported sick or dying animals, although local officials have not reported the death of animals other than fish. One viral video documented a male resident whose voice, in his words, sounds like “Mickey Mouse.” Additionally, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, around 43,000 animals have been reported dead as a result of the chemicals from the crash, mostly marine.
The derailment and its subsequent cleanup has created a political firestorm between Democrats and Republicans. Several Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have criticized a Trump-era rollback of regulations for helping cause the incident. However, according to a Washington Post analysis, none of the regulations removed during former President Donald Trump’s term in office would have prevented this particular derailment. On the other end, Republicans have been using the derailment to criticize U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying that he is more focused on “woke initiatives” than his job. Secretary Buttigieg admitted that he should have spoken out sooner about the derailment, but has denounced with vigor other criticisms, including former President Trump claiming that Secretary Buttigieg only got his role because he’s “the gay guy.”
Secretary Buttigieg slammed Norfolk Southern in a letter on February 19, blaming their greed as the primary cause of the derailment. Since then, he has called on major freight rail companies to sign on to initiatives to improve rail safety and prevent another disaster like this one in the future. All Class 1 railroads, which include CSX Transportation, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, Kansas City Southern, BNSF Railway, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific, all agreed to join the effort (called the Confidential Close Call Reporting System) on March 2. The site of the derailment is still inhabited by cleaning crews. According to experts, the cleaning will take years and may never be finished.