By Andrew J. Whelton
Headaches and lingering chemical smells from a fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, have left residents worried about their air and water – and misinformation on social media hasn’t helped.
State officials offered more details of the cleanup process and a timeline of the environmental disaster during a news conference on Feb. 14, 2023. Nearly a dozen cars carrying chemicals, including vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, derailed on the evening of Feb. 3, and fire from the site sent up acrid black smoke. Officials said they had tested over 400 nearby homes for contamination and were tracking a plume of spilled chemicals that had killed 3,500 fish in streams and reached the Ohio River.
However, the slow release of information after the derailment has left many questions unanswered about the risks and longer-term impact. We put five questions about the chemical releases to Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer who investigates chemical risks during disasters.
Let’s start with what was in the train cars. What are the most concerning chemicals for human health and the environment long term, and what’s known so far about the impact?
The main concerns now are the contamination of homes, soil and water, primarily from volatile organic compounds and semivolatile organic compounds, known as VOCs and SVOCs.
The train had nearly a dozen cars with vinyl chloride and other materials, such as ethylhexyl acrylate and butyl acrylate. These chemicals have varying levels of toxicity and different fates in soil and groundwater. Officials have detected some of those chemicals in the nearby waterway and particulate matter in the air from the fire. But so far, the fate of many of the chemicals is not known. A variety of other materials were also released, but discussion about those chemicals has been limited.
State officials disclosed that a plume of contamination released into the nearby creek had made its way into the Ohio River. Other cities get their drinking water from the river, and were warned about the risk. The farther this plume moves downstream, the less concentrated the chemical will be in water, posing less of a risk.
Long term, the greatest risk is closest to the derailment location. And again, there’s limited information about what chemicals are present – or were created through chemical reactions during the fire.
It isn’t clear yet how much went into storm drains, was flushed down the streams or may have settled to the bottom of waterways.
There was also a lot of combusted particulate matter. The black smoke is a clear indication. It’s unclear how much was diluted in the air or fell to the ground.
How long can these chemicals linger in soil and water, and what’s their potential long-term risk to humans and wildlife?
The heavier the chemical, often the slower it degrades and the more likely it is to stick to soil. These compounds can remain for years if left unaddressed.
After the Kalamazoo River oil pipeline break in Michigan in 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency excavated a tributary where the oil settled. We’ve also seen from oil spills on the coasts of Alaska and Alabama that oil chemicals can find their way into soil if it isn’t remediated.
The long-term impact in Ohio will depend in part on how fast – and thoroughly – cleanup occurs.
If the heavily contaminated soils and liquids are excavated and removed, the long-term impacts can be reduced. But the longer removal takes, the farther the contamination can spread. It’s in everyone’s best interest to clean this up as soon as possible and before the region gets rain.
Booms in a nearby stream have been deployed to capture chemicals. Air-stripping devices have been deployed to remove chemicals from the waterways. Air stripping causes the light chemicals to leave the water and enter air. This is a common treatment technique and was used after an 2015 oil spill in the Yellowstone River near Glendive, Montana.
At the derailment site in Ohio, workers are already removing contaminated soil as deep as 7 feet (about 2 meters) near where the rail cars burned.
Some of the train cars were intentionally drained and the chemicals set on fire to eliminate them. That fire had thick black smoke. What does that tell you about the chemicals and longer-term risks?
Incineration is one way we dispose of hazardous chemicals, but incomplete chemical destruction creates a host of byproducts. Chemicals can be destroyed when heated to extremely high temperatures so they burn thoroughly.
The black smoke plume you saw on TV was incomplete combustion. A number of other chemicals were created. Officials don’t necessarily know what these were or where they went until they test for them.
We know ash can pose health risks, which is why we test inside homes after wildfires where structures burn. This is one reason the state’s health director told residents with private wells near and downwind of the derailment to use bottled water until they can have their wells tested.
The EPA has been screening homes near the derailment for indoor air-quality concerns. How do these chemicals get into homes and what happens to them in enclosed spaces?
Homes are not airtight, and sometimes dust and other materials get in. It might be through an open door or a window sill. Sometimes people track it in.
So far, the U.S. EPA has reported no evidence of high levels of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride in the 400 or so homes tested. But full transparency has been lacking. Just because an agency is doing testing doesn’t mean it is testing for what it needs to test for.
Media reports talk about four or five chemicals, but the manifest from Norfolk Southern also listed a bunch of other materials in tanks that burned. All those materials create potentially hundreds to thousands of VOCs and SVOCs.
Are government officials testing for everything they should?
People in the community have reported headaches, which can be caused by VOCs and other chemicals. They’re understandably concerned.
Ohio and federal officials need to better communicate what they’re doing, why, and what they plan to do. It’s unclear what questions they are trying to answer. For a disaster this serious, little testing information has been shared.
In the absence of this transparency, misinformation is filling that void. From a homeowner’s perspective, it’s hard to understand the true risk if the data is not shared.
Andrew J. Whelton is Professor of Civil, Environmental & Ecological Engineering, Director of the Healthy Plumbing Consortium and Center for Plumbing Safety, Purdue University.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
White noise? Why can’t it be brown or black noise? The racism displayed by this site is stunning. Why only show black criminals?
Pierre Tristam says
Oh, Jesus Mary and Jethro. When will the CDC declare a subliteracy pandemic? Do we have to spell it out? White Noise is a novel by Don DeLillo from the 1980s where a central event is a train derailment that causes a massive toxic plume and endless speculation, misinformation, misinterpretations. The Ohio incident (the movie White Noise was filmed in Ohio) is life imitating art, or vice versa.
Easy Pierre. Most general audiences read 8-9 grade level -fact.
Next will you want to remove warning labels like “ don’t hold the wrong end of this chainsaw” true label.
God bless public education.
Pierre Tristam says
Just because “most” of the audience reads at middle school level—a myth, anyway, and an insult to middle school readers, who I find a lot more savvy than the corrupting effects of adulthood—-doesn’t mean we should dumb everything down to that level, as if those with a few more synapses in their gray cells don’t count.
“Officials don’t necessarily know what these were or where they went until they test for them.”
How will they know what to test for if they don’t know where to look and don’t know what they’re looking for?
Timothy Patrick Welch says
I wonder who pays…
Local responders are paid by local tax payers. Remediation? Liability? Trains regularly pass poor neighborhoods with no direct benefit to the local community, yet face nearly unlimited risk.
EPA may force payment. May? Should companies always cover the cost? A yes!
Further it seems like the type of rail car used was inadequate for the contents. Should Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg be pushing for safer rail cars? A yes!
The lack of response by the federal government regarding this is shameful, but this is Biden’s America, and is to be expected.
The dude says
Was the federal government asked to respond to this by the Governor, County, City?
Or, are you suggesting that the federal government should supercede any state government decisions and just unilaterally inject itself into the situation?
But FLA is Trump’s state, and this sort of inaccurate and demonstrably false, and contradictory pontificating is to be expected. And shameful.
“Was the federal government asked to respond to this by the Governor, County, City?”
Yes they were.
“Or, are you suggesting that the federal government should supercede any state government decisions and just unilaterally inject itself into the situation?”
Yes they should, they regulate the railroads, as in pothole Pete.
“But FLA is Trump’s state, and this sort of inaccurate and demonstrably false, and contradictory pontificating is to be expected. And shameful.”
What the hell does Trump, or Florida, have to do with the derailment in Ohio?
You sir, seem to have your head buried where the sun doesn’t shine. The most shameful thing is there are people like you, breathing.
Ray W. says
As an interesting aside, Politifact reports that a 2015 Obama administration rule required that all trains carrying 70 or more rail cars of high hazard flammable materials were to have electronically controlled pneumatic brakes that engage simultaneously installed in all rail cars by 2023, in order to more rapidly slow a train during emergencies.
During the Trump administration, the rule was rescinded, with the administration citing that the cost was not worth the safety to be gained.
It wouldn’t have made a difference in this derailment because the train contained fewer than 70 rail cars carrying high hazard flammable materials. I don’t know why 69 cars filled with high hazard flammable materials were deemed safe enough in 2015 to fall below the safety mandate.
Nor do I know why the Trump administration decided that the costs of implementing a safer braking system were deemed more important than the costs arising from the potential harm to human livelihood without the better brakes.
Yes, had the rule remained in place, all trains meeting the descriptions set out in the rule would have to have had the better brakes today, but railroad companies would simply have limited high hazard flammable cargoes to less than 70 cars per train to avoid spending the money to install the upgraded brakes.
Yes, an apparent wheel bearing failure may have been the actual cause of the derailment, which carries its own maintenance concerns, along with its own cost-cutting issues.
I have heard the scree of an impending front wheel bearing failure while racing a friend’s motorcycle at the old Gainesville road racing course in the late ’70’s, using the drag strip and associated return roads. As the scree was increasing in pitch and intensity, I pitted early, and the team had to retire from the endurance event. That sound was loudest at high speed, but any bearing failure carries its own grinding sound, which might have been heard easiest in a marshalling yard where cars are coupled together or decoupled with lots of workers in the area while cars are moving. On the other hand, while driving home from a race at Road Atlanta, I ended my stint as the driver at a gas station near Jasper, Florida. I commented to the next driver that something was wrong, because fuel mileage had begun to drop, but I didn’t think enough to feel the trailer’s wheel bearing housing for heat. About 15 miles into the next stint, I awakened in the back of the van to a violent ride into the median; the right trailer tire assembly, including the bearing, had separated from the spindle. The spindle was glowing red hot and sizzling in the wet grass. The wheel was found about a 1/2 mile down I-75. Of course, mandatory maintenance schedules can reduce rail car wheel bearing failures (French resistance fighters, prior to D-Day, managed to introduce sand into rail cars wheel bearing assemblies throughout France, causing significant disruption to German rail traffic).
Something tells me that Jake is both right and wrong at the same time.
It seems that the rail industry has known of this type of problem for a long time. It also seems that the technology exists to greatly improve the braking efficiency and safety of trains carrying high hazard flammable materials. And the Obama administration took some of the steps necessary to improve rail safety, but it didn’t go far enough. An inference can be drawn that a compromise was reached with train companies in 2015 to require the braking upgrade only when 70 or more cars carrying high hazard flammable materials are involved. It doesn’t take an inference to know why that less than fully effective safety rule was done away with during the Trump administration. Can it be argued that rail traffic is less safe today because the Trump administration decided that safety upgrades just cost too much?
Does the average FlaglerLive reader see the differences between how a zealous advocate who carries a duty to share a more complete explanation of a safety situation with other readers chooses to present an argument, as compared with how a partisan member of faction, like, Jake, who presents himself as a commenter capable of only placing blame, without any duty to more fully explain a situation? Does anyone question why Madison, in Federalist Paper #37, described partisan members of faction, like Jake presents himself to be, as “pestilential” to democracy? Would Madison, in today’s political environment, have described Jake as an extraordinarily shameful individual, as opposed to pestilential?
Of course, as the old lawyer’s comment goes: “Sometimes the only thing you can do to help someone is stand back and watch as they drown in their own spit.” Does Jake really wish that The dude stop breathing? Wow! Pestilential to democracy, indeed. What a shame. Our founding fathers really understood the depravities of human nature; they went to great lengths to protect us all from people like Jake.
jake, when not decreeing who is fit to breath, probably rales (clinical pun) against burdensome regulation, or as he puts it: all that red tape and rules.
Some additional asides concerning working on the railroad:
How soon we forget, or never knew: “…One unconscionable statistic gleaned from The History Channel’s “Freight Trains” on Modern Marvels the other night:
Between 1890 and 1917, there were 230,000 on-the-job deaths of railroad employees in this country.
Compare that to 291,557 U.S. servicemen killed in battle during World War II.
On the railroad, that comes to about 8,200 per year during that period, or 23 each day…”
The Life of a Brakeman
And so it went.
Ray W. says
Pogo, when I typed my reply to Jake’s comment, I had not yet researched the issue of heat sensors. Apparently, placing heat sensors at a certain height near a track allows a company to keep track of wheel bearing heat levels in real time. The article I read did not list the cost to rail companies of installing and monitoring the sensors, but I know that in the late ’80’s Honda had heat sensors mounted on swingarms to track rear tire heat and associated wear during practice before the Daytona 200; today’s technology can’t be so expensive that train companies will lose money using it. The costs of defending the lawsuits arising from this derailment will dwarf the money saved by not installing heat sensors before the disaster.
Some FlaglerLive readers may be old enough to remember that Ford engineers had designed a bolt-on shield to protect Pinto gas tanks from puncturing during rear-end collisions. The shields cost $5 to produce and install during assembly, for a total cost of $1.2 million per year, but Ford accountants deemed to costs too great. Ford produced the documents about the shields in discovery. When jurors were told of Ford’s cost-cutting decisions, and the company’s weighing the costs of paying money to family members of the dead or severely injured occupants, the juries began returning the country’s first million-dollar verdicts.
I remember the matter of the Pinto fuel tanks, all too well. It comes to mind every time I read or hear: so-and-so agreed to pay a zillion dollars — and “admitted no guilt” which must be code for what?
Those million-dollar verdicts, of course, were followed by the ascent of weasel speak contract boilerplate requiring agreement to binding arbitration in virtually every contractual agreement in use. It’s no coincidence, IMO, that AT&T’s logo looks like the Star Wars death star.
Heads, we win — tails, you lose.
“There was a crash similar to this in New Jersey in 2014 where there were toxic chemicals on board and the Obama administration put forward a new rule for regulating trains to upgrade the brake systems if it had petroleum and other toxic chemicals on it.
“And then Norfolk Southern and other railroad industry honchos lobbied the government and in 2017, during the Trump administration, were able to pull back a rule that would have upgraded civil war era brake systems. Civil War era,”
So add trump to the list of entities sued for this preventable disaster.