Ohio Train Wreck Shows: EPA Needs to Strengthen Disaster Prevention Rules

February 27, 2023 | 4:08 pm
Train derailment in East Palestine, OH Feb. 2023Gene Puskar/AP Photo
Darya Minovi
Senior Analyst

Earlier this month, a 149-car train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed from the tracks near the 4,700-person town of East Palestine, Ohio. Some of the cars contained flammable hazardous substances, including vinyl chloride, which ignited upon derailing and burned for days.

Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas that is primarily used to make PVC plastic, often a component of building materials. Exposure to vinyl chloride is associated with an increased risk of cancer, as well as liver damage and central nervous system disfunction. (Vinyl chloride is produced from ethylene, which is also used to make ethylene oxide, another toxic gas that is polluting communities across the US). At least four other cancer-causing chemicals that can cause eye and skin irritation and/or respiratory damage were also released during the derailment.

In short, this incident is a public health and ecological disaster.

Hundreds of people were told to evacuate. Concerned that tanks containing vinyl chloride would explode, responders performed a “controlled” release and burn, which emitted hydrogen chloride and phosgene in the air, both of which are toxic to breathe.

While the most recent air and drinking water sampling does not indicate elevated levels of the chemicals in question, community members are wary. Residents smell chemical odors and have reported headaches, nausea and other gastrointestinal symptoms, and strange skin rashes. Their pets and livestock have fallen ill and died. Tens of thousands of aquatic animals were found dead in nearby waterways. Surface water sampling shows contamination in local streams, and in the days following the incident, sampling of the Ohio River—which provides drinking water for five million people—detected butyl acrylate, one of the chemicals released. We also know little about how being exposed to a mixture of these burning toxic chemicals could impact people’s health.

The grim reality is that the toxic legacy of this incident may take years to reveal itself. Many federally-approved sampling methods are not sensitive enough, or are based on outdated standards that do not account for the low-level concentrations of chemicals that can be harmful to people’s health over time. This is especially true for endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as some released in this incident. Furthermore, despite an explicit request from Ohio Senators, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not yet tested for dioxins, a class of chemicals that are formed when chemicals like vinyl chloride are burned. Dioxins are extremely toxic, even at low levels of exposure.

The EPA needs stronger rules to prevent chemical disasters

The sad reality is that stronger regulations could likely have prevented this disaster.

The EPA is currently in the process of updating its Risk Management Program (RMP), which was established to help prevent disasters at nearly 12,000 highly hazardous chemical facilities nationwide.

Trains containing hazardous substances usually transport them between facilities that use and manufacture these chemicals. And many of these facilities—but not all of them—are regulated under the RMP. They should be.

Vinyl chloride is a regulated substance under the RMP. But RMP regulations today are inadequate to protect workers and communities from harm.

According to a new map using data collected by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters (CPCD), this latest disaster is one of at least 224 chemical incidents in the United States since January 1, 2022. That averages out to a chemical incident – including releases, explosions, or fires – every other day. Despite efforts by chemical industry trade groups to claim otherwise, hazardous chemical accidents are commonplace, and some communities bear this burden more than others.  

An important first step, demanded by many fenceline, grassroots, and labor groups, and also recommended by CPCD, is that the EPA require all RMP-regulated facilities to evaluate and, most importantly, implement safer chemicals and processes. (In EPA’s proposed updates to the rule, only five percent of RMP-regulated facilities are required to do so.) Some dangerous and explosive chemicals, such as ammonium nitrate, aren’t even covered under the RMP.

As Rick Hind, a chemical policy expert and consultant for Materials Research explained, such a commonsense change would “also result in a reduction in the amount of hazardous cargo shipped daily through our communities.” Adopting safer chemicals and processes would benefit RMP facility workers, communities living at the fenceline of these facilities, and the communities living along the roughly 100,000 miles of US railroads.

Furthermore, access to a public database of RMP facilities–something that is currently unavailable–would better equip first responders and the communities near and between these facilities with information about the chemicals that are being used and transported. Without this information, people are often left in the dark until after a disaster has happened and the often-toxic dust has literally settled. Advocates are also calling on the EPA to require RMP facilities to assess how natural hazards, which are intensifying with climate change, could impact facility operations and to implement measures to prevent natural hazard-driven disasters. Roughly one-third of RMP facilities are in areas at risk of wildfire, storm surge, flooding, and sea level rise, and presumably so too is much of the transportation infrastructure between these facilities.

These requirements must also extend to transportation of hazardous substances. Our infrastructure is currently unequipped to handle events such as extreme heatwaves which can cause train tracks to warp. Railroad buckling during a heatwave has already caused derailments. Any facility storing hazardous substances–mobile or not–needs to account for such escalating hazards and implement measures to prevent accidents or unplanned releases.

While the RMP does not explicitly cover mobile sources—in other words, transportation of hazardous substances—the rail industry has still attempted to weaken the rule. For example, in its comments on the proposal, the Association of American Railroads, which includes Norfolk Southern, seeks to limit EPA’s authority, particularly arguing that stationary rail cars storing hazardous substances should not be subject to additional requirements applied to other RMP facilities.

Rail companies have a long history of avoiding regulations

This is not the first time that the rail industry has sought to evade stronger safety regulations.

In 2014, following a train derailment in New Jersey that also leaked vinyl chloride, the Obama administration proposed regulations to strengthen safety standards for trains transporting petroleum and other hazardous substances. However, industry lobbying weakened the rule significantly, exempting many flammable materials (including vinyl chloride), despite the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendation that they be covered.

Then, in 2017, the Trump administration rolled back a provision that had required trains to install a new, safer braking technology that could stop trains much faster. At the same time, rail companies such as Norfolk Southern continued to ignore safety guidelines, slash their workforce, and deny rail workers basic benefits like paid sick leave. This was also not the company’s first disastrous derailment involving toxic chemicals.

Long past time for action

Unfortunately, the effects of the disaster are likely to continue, and many of them could affect people far from Ohio. More than one million gallons of the toxic wastewater from extinguishing the fire in East Palestine, for instance, was shipped for disposal to Deer Park, Texas, a suburb of Houston. There, it will be injected thousands of feet underground into a well and could ultimately threaten groundwater in the years ahead. That well lies in a predominantly low-income, BIPOC community that already faces a legacy of toxic pollution and a chemical facility fire in 2019. Highly contaminated soil, meanwhile, is being transported to a disposal facility in Belleville, Michigan.

Today, the East Palestine disaster represents business as usual for the petrochemical industry. From cradle to grave, these fossil fuel-derived chemicals wreak havoc on the communities they pass through, upholding our dependence on fossil fuels and PVC plastics produced at facilities that are concentrated in communities of color and low-income communities.

We must demand better. We need to do more to require changes that can help prevent these kinds of disasters that, whether intentional or not, are foisted upon workers and the people who live, work, and attend school near these operations.

While a number of reforms are needed, including updating railway safety standards and adequately funding agencies such as EPA to respond, strengthening the agency’s RMP is a necessary step. As I write this, EPA is writing a final RMP rule. The agency’s decisions and its willingness to meaningfully incorporate input from hundreds of community members, chemical safety experts, and advocates from across the country will have lasting consequences. President Biden’s EPA has made many commitments to advancing environmental justice, and the strength of the final RMP rule will show us whether they mean them.

Without a strong rule that requires RMP facilities to evaluate and implement safer technologies and chemicals, that covers a broad range of dangerous and toxic substances, that provides the public with easy access to RMP data, and that requires facilities to implement measures to prevent climate-driven disasters, communities like East Palestine will continue to be harmed. Without these science-based safeguards, the chemical industry’s operations will continue to catch fire, explode, derail, or cause other forms of large-scale disasters at their facilities or during the transport of dangerous chemicals.