Making sense of the East Palestine, OH train disaster – could it happen in Detroit?

On Monday, Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, a town of about 5,000 northwest of Pittsburgh. On Feb. 6, authorities decided to release the contents of several cars, including those containing highly toxic vinyl chloride, to avoid “the risk of uncontrollable shrapnel from an explosion.”

The release involved setting the contents of some cars on fire, discharging deadly fumes into the air, and creating huge plumes of smoke.

A mandatory evacuation was ordered at the time of the release. This order was lifted on Wednesday, Feb. 8, after officials said air and water samples showed the area was safe. However, monitoring is ongoing, and the EPA has reported several additional chemicals released from damaged train cars. Residents have reported seeing dead wildlife, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said that the incident killed 3,500 small fish along 7.5 miles of streams.

In addition to the event’s health impacts, the derailment has raised concerns about railroad safety and government response. These issues may have special resonance in Michigan, which has seen several derailments recently. There was a recent derailment Thursday in Van Buren Township, over Scotten Street in Southwest Detroit, and another in Warren in October 2022, where tankers carrying unrefined alcohol and chlorine derailed, sparking fears of a possible HAZMAT situation. 

And a proposed merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern would create a single Mexico-to-Canada rail route, which may mean more rail and truck traffic in already-overburdened Southwest Detroit.  

Experts say that the long-term effects of chemical spills are often overlooked. For example, chronic exposure to vinyl chloride can cause a rare form of liver cancer and other types of cancer. And spilled chemicals can also react with one another and break down into other toxic substances. There are concerns that some of the chemicals may have formed dioxins when they burned, highly toxic compounds that persist in the environment and accumulate in the food chain.

An article in The Lever called attention to the braking system used by freight trains. There was a push during the Obama administration to adopt Electronically Controlled Pneumatic Brakes (ECP) for trains carrying hazardous materials. These brakes send an electronic signal to stop all of a train’s cars at once and would have replaced the air brakes that use compressed air to stop cars one by one. But Norfolk Southern and others successfully lobbied the Trump administration to repeal a 2015 rule requiring ECP brakes for some trains carrying hazardous materials.

There has also been criticism of the Biden administration and others for not moving to reinstate the 2015 brake rule or taking the lead on the public response to the crisis.

“This lack of visible leadership can contribute to beliefs that government is not taking the situation seriously, or worse, that they are trying to cover it up,” Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, wrote in an article for MSNBC. She notes that it took ten days for Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to speak about the incident. He later said he lacked the power to reinstate the 2015 brake rule, a claim that some legal and regulatory experts disputed.

However, it’s unclear if the ECP brakes would have prevented the disaster in East Palestine. Rail unions have drawn attention to issues like increasingly long and heavy trains and a lack of adequate safety equipment like radios that can communicate across the full length of these trains.  

Meanwhile, residents complain of a lingering chlorine smell in East Palestine. And an EPA letter to Norfolk Southern said the company failed to properly dispose of contaminated soil following the derailment, posing a potential contamination threat to groundwater. On Wednesday, Feb. 15, Norfolk Southern backed out of a scheduled community meeting, citing threats to employees.


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