Ohio Train Derailment: Separating Fact From Fiction

The derailment of a Norfolk Southern train that spilled toxic chemicals and led to a controlled burn of the substances in East Palestine, Ohio, has become one of the highest-profile — and most politicized — incidents of its kind in the United States in recent years.

Frightened residents in the town of 4,700 have complained about various ailments in the weeks since the wreck, which took place on Feb. 3, and are worried about long-term health consequences. State and federal officials have said repeatedly that they have yet to detect dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or municipal water.

Some experts say that fully understanding the consequences of the accident requires a more comprehensive investigation — and more time to pass. But as residents wait, their efforts to process what happened have been complicated by political crossfire and misinformation.

Conservatives have been particularly critical of the derailment and the federal response, using the crisis to sow public distrust in government agencies. Some commentators have claimed a cover-up — despite widespread news media coverage — and many Republican politicians have accused the Biden administration of neglecting the community in the incident’s aftermath.

Here is what is known — and not known — about the derailment and its impact.

The Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, was still on fire at midday on Feb. 4, the day after the crash.Credit…Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Residents talking with an Ohio Department of Natural Resources representative at an information session following the derailment.Credit…Brian Kaiser for The New York Times

What chemicals were on the train, and what are the dangers?

About 20 of the roughly 150 train cars en route from Madison, Ill., to Conway, Pa., were carrying hazardous materials, according to a Feb. 10 letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It said that the compounds released into the environment included:

  • Butyl acrylate, a clear liquid with a fruity odor that can cause breathing difficulty and skin irritation.

  • Ethylhexyl acrylate, a clear liquid that is used to make paints and plastics and can irritate the skin, eyes and respiratory tract.

  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, a colorless liquid that is used to make paints and varnish. In an experiment that exposed people to a high level of the chemical for several hours, some subjects reported irritation of the nose and eyes, headaches and vomiting.

  • Vinyl chloride, a colorless gas used in making plastic products. The compound, which the E.P.A. has said was on five of the train cars, was of particular concern to authorities in the days following the derailment. The gas has what toxicologists describe as a “mild, sweet odor” and can cause dizziness, headaches and drowsiness when inhaled in the short term, and a rare form of liver cancer after chronic exposure.

When burned, vinyl chloride decomposes into gases that include hydrogen chloride and phosgene. Hydrogen chloride has a strong, irritating odor and is corrosive to any tissue that comes in contact with it, according to the federal toxic substances registry. Phosgene smells like freshly cut hay and can cause coughing and wheezing if inhaled.

“We’ve been testing for the most toxic chemicals that we knew of on the train,” Debra Shore, a regional administrator for the E.P.A., said at a news conference on Sunday. “And we have seen no exceedances inside the homes or in the local air.”

Still, some experts have said that the authorities have not tested in enough places or for a broad enough range of substances.

The Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

When a freight train derailed in Ohio on Feb. 3, it set off evacuation orders, a toxic chemical scare and a federal investigation.

  • Legal Action Ramps Up: Lawyers have poured into East Palestine since the train derailment, filing more than a dozen lawsuits so far on behalf of local residents.
  • Farmers Fear a ‘Forever Scar’: The train derailment has upended a region of Ohio where generations of families could afford to buy acres of land, raise livestock and plant gardens.
  • Cleanup Costs: The Environmental Protection Agency ordered Norfolk Southern, the operator of the derailed train, to clean up any resulting contamination and pay all the costs.
  • A Parade of Politicians: The train derailment has spawned conspiracy theories and contradictory narratives, with politicians from both parties parading through East Palestine to further their agendas.

Why were the chemicals burned?

Norfolk Southern conducted the controlled release and burn-off of some of the train’s chemical cargo — a process that generated a massive, sooty plume of smoke on Feb. 6 — to avoid an explosion that might have caused even more widespread damage, officials said. Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, signed off on the plan, describing it as the lesser of two evils; Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, also approved it, though he accused Norfolk Southern of mishandling the process and failing to consider other options.

The E.P.A. has ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up any resulting contamination and pay all the costs.

Norfolk Southern, one of the largest railroads in North America, said it had given financial aid to the residents and businesses of East Palestine and would work to clean up the area.

One issue with toxic chemical releases is that the hazards are posed not just by the individual chemicals involved, said Gerald Poje, an expert in environmental health and former member of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. Chemical compounds can interact with one another in complex ways and persist after burning.

“There could be hundreds of different breakdown products that still remain, for which we have often very poor toxicological profiles,” Dr. Poje said. “We’re oftentimes in this unknown place.”

What are dioxins, and why are some people concerned?

Dioxins are toxic pollutants that may have formed as the vinyl chloride cargo burned. Because they take a while to break down, they could pose a long-term threat.

While these compounds are already present in many environments — they can be byproducts of burning fuel, among other things — the E.P.A. has been working for decades to reduce their production. According to the agency, they can cause cancer, interfere with hormones and cause damage to reproductive and immune systems.

On Tuesday, Michael Regan, the E.P.A. administrator, said he had talked with community members about their concerns around dioxins, but stopped short of saying the agency would test for them.

“I’m taking that information back to my team, back to Washington D.C., and I want folks to know we’ve heard them loud and clear on that topic,” he said.

Murray McBride, a soil and environmental chemist and an emeritus professor at Cornell University, said that more tests were needed to determine whether dioxins had been deposited onto soil as a result of the chemical burn — and if so, how far they may have spread.

Has the release of chemicals caused people to get sick?

The answer is not clear. People who live in and around East Palestine have complained of headaches, coughs, rashes and other classic symptoms of chemical exposure.

Experts from top environmental and health agencies have been testing whether chemicals released in the crash or burned off afterward have contaminated the air or water. As of yet, though, they have not been able to explain why people are still reporting ailments.

State and federal officials have said continually that they have not detected dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or municipal water, citing preliminary data from hundreds of homes in the town. Pennsylvania officials have also tested private wells near the derailment site, which is very close to the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

But chemical smells — with notes of burning plastic, nail polish remover and glue — have lingered there for weeks.

Officials have pointed out that odors do not necessarily indicate toxicity. Still, people have been sniffing the water coming from the taps, wondering about water in private wells and checking mysterious rashes in the mirror.

Reflecting the fundamental lack of trust that residents have in Norfolk Southern and the government, both of which have conducted testing, some people who live in the region are seeking independent tests or are looking for ways to conduct their own.

What was the damage to local water?

The contaminants spilled into some waterways and affected about seven and a half miles of stream, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. By Feb. 8, the spill had killed an estimated 3,500 fish. Officials used dams to divert clean water around contaminated areas.

Vinyl chloride may have killed the fish shortly after the spill, Dr. McBride said, but the compound may have dissipated from waterways in the weeks since. He said he was more concerned that vinyl chloride may have seeped into the subsoil, where it could remain for longer periods of time, potentially endangering nearby wells.

State and federal officials have stressed that the municipal water is safe. The E.P.A. has tested dozens of wells, mostly in Ohio, and found them safe as well. But officials have encouraged families in the area with private wells to keep drinking bottled water until their wells are tested; scheduling those tests has been challenging because of high demand.

Notes of support on the window of a downtown business.Credit…Brian Kaiser for The New York Times
The National Transportation Safety Board has not yet released the cause of the train derailment. Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Would a regulation repealed by the Trump administration have prevented the derailment?

Probably not. A 2015 rule that was implemented during the Obama administration imposed stricter regulations for high-hazard flammable trains, including a requirement for more sophisticated braking systems.

The rule was repealed in 2018 under President Trump. And in a statement last week, the White House said that Republicans should “stop dismantling rail safety and selling out communities like East Palestine to the rail lobby.”

But the train that derailed was a “general merchandise freight train,” according to the initial N.T.S.B. report, and did not qualify as a high-hazard flammable train, even though it was carrying hazardous cargo. And while the regulation was meant to address the speed of trains, speed does not appear to have been the issue in this case.

When did federal officials arrive at the site?

The E.P.A. has had a presence on the ground in East Palestine since 2 a.m. on Feb. 4, hours after the crash, to help state and local authorities with response efforts, according to an agency spokeswoman. By the end of that day, the E.P.A. had 17 coordinators and contractors performing air quality monitoring and testing, had brought in a mobile analytical laboratory to test samples and had deployed a special aircraft to assess emissions releases.

Still, administration officials have faced criticism over what some residents and lawmakers have seen as a delayed response. Mr. Regan, the E.P.A. administrator, toured the derailment site on Feb. 16. Noting that the site was 20 miles from his state’s border, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a Democrat, decried as “unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up.”

The U.S. transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, visited East Palestine on Thursday, more than two weeks after the crash, and President Biden said Friday that he had no plans to visit.

Emily Cochrane, Campbell Robertson, Jonathan Weisman, Raymond Zhong, Catrin Einhorn, Lisa Friedman and Amanda Holpuch contributed reporting.

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