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The Ohio Toxic Train Wreck and Government’s Failure of Regulation and Response

The toxic train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio, was sadly a routine failure of our inability to manage the transport, use, and disposal of toxic chemicals. As Christine Hauser reported in the New York Times:

“Around 9 p.m. on Feb. 3, a train derailed in East Palestine, a village of about 4,700 residents about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. There were 150 cars on the route from Madison, Ill., to Conway, Pa. The National Transportation Safety Board said that 38 cars derailed and a fire ensued, which damaged another 12 cars. The train, operated by Norfolk Southern, had been carrying chemicals and combustible materials, with vinyl chloride, a toxic flammable gas, being of most concern to investigators.”

Norfolk Southern has been cutting back train staffing and lobbying against new safety rules, so the technology that is available to make transport safer has not been required by government regulation. The derailment appears to have been caused by the type of mechanical failure that could easily be detected and prevented by modern sensors, but they cost money, and Norfolk Southern and other train lines would rather pocket excess profits than invest in safety. Our hapless federal government, worried about right-wing attacks about “job-killing regulations,” doesn’t ever seem to talk about “people killing de-regulation.”

EPA is monitoring the air and water nearby, and the toxic concentrations seem to be at “safe levels,” but locals don’t trust the measures, the standards, or the government taking the readings and reporting them. And why should they? People feel ill, fish have died, and people believe their senses rather than official pronouncements. The federal, state, and local government’s response to the disaster was rapid but did not match the scale of public concern. The issue of public perceptions of toxic chemical releases is something I’ve been studying since the Love Canal disaster, which took place in Niagara Falls, New York, in 1978 while I was a graduate student at nearby SUNY Buffalo. In the fall of 1977, I worked at the U.S. EPA in Washington D.C., staffing a working group developing guidance for public involvement in America’s water pollution control programs. Later, in 1979 and 1980, I coordinated the development of community relations policy for the Superfund toxic waste clean-up program. As part of that process, we commissioned about two dozen case studies of citizen-government interaction at toxic waste clean-ups, and in nearly every case, we saw government mistakes and emotional, intense public concern.

The public correctly fears the unknown, and the long-term latent impact of toxics should not be dismissed but should be addressed and monitored. Toxic chemicals scare people, and government needs to respond to that sense of fear and apprehension. One would hope that over four decades later, the lessons of Love Canal and Superfund would be part of EPA’s institutional lore, but four years of Trump and 40 years of anti-regulatory ideology have not done much to build the capacity of EPA to regulate, communicate, or respond to toxic disasters. They have seemed particularly tone-deaf in dealing with the social and psychological impacts of toxics in a community. We saw that in Flint, Michigan’s lead water crisis, and we are seeing it now in Ohio.

It was good that the EPA administrator finally showed up after two weeks, but he should have been there with the president, governor, and the secretary of transportation on the second day—even if they had to wear moon suits to visit the site. Assistance to local residents should have been immediate and handled with competence and sensitivity. The rapid reassurance that everything was safe should have been avoided. These early efforts to generate calm often backfire and also undermine the reassurance communication that should come later, after more extensive testing and sampling and truly independent peer scientific review is complete. The government was not trusted at Love Canal in the late 1970s, it was not trusted in Flint, Michigan, and it is even less trusted today.

The fire, explosion, and response were dangerous and certainly reinforced the community’s fear. According to an account of the disaster by Simon Ducroquet, Nico Kommenda and John Muyskens of the Washington Post:

“Eleven of the derailed cars contained hazardous materials, some of which are used to make plastics. Vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing substance, was among the primary chemicals released in the crash, according to Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesman James Lee. Vinyl chloride also releases other chemicals when it burns, many of which can be harmful to humans, experts say. Exposure to these chemicals can cause eye or throat irritation, as well as dizziness, nausea or headache. The risk of coming into contact with the hazardous chemicals, as well as possible explosions, meant that firefighters could not immediately put out the blaze… Two days after the crash, officials monitoring the situation said there was serious concern one of the cars would explode in a “catastrophic” blast, according to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), as the temperature in the car rose. Authorities ordered the evacuation of about 1,500 residents and initiated a controlled release of vinyl chloride from five train cars to avert an explosion, sending a toxic plume into the air.”

East Palestine, Ohio, endured explosions, poisons, potential catastrophe, and a fire too dangerous for first responders to fight. This is not a fertile environment to communicate calm reassurance that “all is well.” All is far from well. This is a time to express concern and reinforce the need for caution and the collection of additional scientific fact. It’s also a time to hold the train company accountable for the financial impact of their shoddy, if legal, safety practices.

We might also think more broadly about the underlying issue and examine the use of toxics and plastics in everyday life. Before the chemical revolution of the post-World War II economy, most of our household products were biodegradable. That all changed in the middle of the 20th century when newly created chemicals were used to manufacture plastic coverings for walls, non-stick pans, and countless other “improvements” to the performance, durability, and price of household goods. The benefits of these new products were advertised, but the risks of these new substances were neither discussed nor considered. Our waste stream became toxic, and forever plastics and chemicals now persist throughout our ecosphere. And when some of these chemicals or plastics burn, they create poisons. Moreover, as we learned in Ohio, transporting these chemicals can also expose people, animals, and ecosystems to grave dangers. When firefighters go into a modern home to put out a fire, they typically wear breathing gear to protect themselves from the toxic fumes of burning carpets, wallpaper, and vinyl. Our household interiors were once made of wood, stone, and metal, and its burning was tragic but not toxic. The world has changed, and toxics are ubiquitous.

We may be living “better through chemistry,” but we need to improve the way we regulate the transport, use, and disposal of toxic substances. Humans are fallible and make mistakes, and that is why rules that require the use of safety technology are so important in so many places in our economy. It will be interesting to see if this disaster will result in new rules and regulations. Reflexive and ideological resistance to regulation is the direct cause of this disaster. The fact that a video of the train 20 miles from the derailment shows flames beneath one of the train cars is a clear indication that a rule requiring more sophisticated sensors on the trains could have prevented the catastrophe. Yes, this would add costs to shipping, but so does the millions, if not billions, of dollars that someone will need to spend to clean up the mess in East Palestine.

America is paying the price of decades of deregulation. What will it take to shake us out of our complacency and end our failure to regulate toxics transport and respond rapidly to mistakes when they inevitably take place? This catastrophe may well be a warning for a far more costly mistake on the horizon.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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1 year ago

the lessons of Love Canal and Superfund would be part of EPA’s institutional lore, but four years of Trump and 40 years of anti-regulatory ideology have not done much to build the capacity of EPA to regulate, communicate, or respond to toxic disasters.(what does TRUMP have to do with this Disaster?)

Reply to  frank
1 year ago

Because EVERYTHING is Trump’s fault from the slave era, to the destruction of the planet Alderan. It would be WRONG to blame the CURRENT administration who’s had over 2 years to FIX Trump’s evil ways!! (besides blaming someone else is their modus operandi).

Last edited 1 year ago by Mike
Reply to  frank
10 months ago

The Trump administration removed regulations and blocked the adoption of new regulations that would have prevented or at least mitigated this disaster.

Any more questions?