Derailed Train Leaks Toxic Chemicals in East Palestine, Forces Residents to Evacuate

On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train traveling through East Palestine, Ohio derailed due to a mechanical issue, spilling hazardous chemicals and prompting the evacuation of residents until Feb. 8.

After more than 50 cars crashed, at least five of which contained the hazardous gas vinyl chloride, Norfolk Southern secured Ohio state officials’ authorization to start a controlled burn of the spilled chemicals in the hopes of alleviating the risk of an explosion.

According to Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Matthew Elrod, the health impacts of vinyl chloride exposure are potentially deadly.

“That’s a very, very acutely toxic chemical,” Elrod said. “If you’re exposed to enough of it, you can become sick on the spot, and you can potentially die from exposure to it. It’s also chronically toxic if you’re repeatedly exposed to it. It’s known to lead to cancer in particular.”

Following the burn, many residents were reportedly sickened and also observed the death of pets and wildlife.

“The air exposure [to vinyl chloride] was probably the thing that was most dangerous in the beginning,” Elrod said.

Amidst ongoing concerns from East Palestine residents and reporters, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said on Wednesday that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency tested the municipal water and concluded it was safe to drink.

Based on the available reporting from East Palestine, Visiting Assistant Professor of Geosciences Kristen Welsh Unwala assessed that contamination of both surface and groundwater could be a serious concern.

“Once it gets into the surface waters like lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, it does travel downstream, and it will impact communities and states further down in the Mississippi and eventually make its way to the ocean,” Welsh Unwala said.

The soil contaminated by spilled chemicals also threatens the underlying groundwater.

“As it rains, water infiltrates through those soils and into the groundwater, creating a potential for impact to the groundwater table,” Welsh Unwala said. “This can continue over time, over the course of many years, to contaminate the groundwater as it flows through the soils. So there’s the potential for longterm exposure to the groundwater, but it will likely be at smaller amounts.”

The Environmental Protection Agency said in a Feb. 10 letter to Norfolk Southern that samples collected from several waterways confirmed that spilled chemicals were detected in five streams and the Ohio River. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources confirmed that an estimate of 3,500 fish were killed within the 7.5 miles of streams running south of East Palestine.

The situation in East Palestine is also amplifying calls for bolstered safety regulations and stronger rail worker unions.

“Union power could mitigate [disasters] like these,” College fourth-year and member of the Student Labor Action Coalition Brandon Denton said. “Moving forward, there needs to be a broad movement so it can’t happen again, so that there isn’t so much forced understaffing and underpayment and overworking of employees across the board, especially in these sectors that have such a high risk, like transporting chemicals.”

The air and water pollution resulting from the East Palestine crisis is not expected to impact Oberlin. Oberlin Students received an email from Claudia Ferrini, the Environmental Health and Safety Manager, stating that the College would not be affected.

“Our partners at Lorain County Public Health have confirmed with us that there are currently no advisories affecting air or water quality that have been issued for Lorain County with regard to the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio,” the email states. “There are no current public drinking water system advisories for the City of Oberlin.”

Oberlin is not served by any of the water sources in the East Palestine region and has its own water supply. Oberlin also has its own public water plant that works as a treatment facility for the water brought in along the Black River.

“There is no direct impact on Oberlin from this industrial accident,” Jeff Baumann, the public works director for the City of Oberlin, wrote in an email to the Review.