Why is everyone talking about East Palestine, Ohio?

Savannah Throneberry (1L)


On February 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train 32N detrailed. Of the train’s 149 cars, 11 contained hazardous materials. This resulted in the release of toxic waste into East Palestine, Ohio, and the surrounding area.


How did this happen?

An investigation done by the National Transportation Safety Board showed that the crash resulted from an overheated bearing on the 23rd train car. Despite the heat sensors that the train had in place, the first two alarms showed temperatures below the protocol that would require stopping the train. By the time the third sensor went off, which was a warning alarm, the bearing was roughly 253 degrees hotter than the outside temperature. They made efforts to slow down, but considering bearings can burn off in just 1 to 3 minutes there was little time to react, and just 20 miles after the alarm the train derailed. The train was reported to be moving below the speed limit and there was no indication that the train workers did anything wrong to warrant the crash.


So, if everything was according to standard, how did this happen??

This accident, to many people, seems like a strong indication that change in the standards for transporting toxic chemicals via train is necessary. Currently, bearings are measured by their heat index, via a hot-box detector, however an alternative or addition to this, as prompted by the International Journal of Rail Transportation, might be to include tracking the load and vibration of the bearing. A major issue is that large corporations, like Norfolk Southern, have a history of past lobbying efforts against implementing further train safety standards such as electronic braking.


What chemicals were released?

According to the EPA, there were five main toxic chemicals released as a result of the crash.

  • vinyl chloride – has been linked to liver, brain and lung cancers, lymphoma and leukemia.
  • butyl acrylate – used to manufacture paints, solvents, and sealants and has been linked to nose, eye, and skin irritations as well as nausea.
  • ethylene glycol – used in paints, inks, and cleaning products, this chemical is highly flammable and has been known to cause irritation to the nose, eye, and throat.
  • Isobutylene – used in the creation of packaging and plastics and in moderation can cause dizziness and drowsiness.
  • ethylhexyl acrylate – used to make paints and plastics and has been linked to throat irritation and vomiting.

In total, there were roughly 115,580 gallons of chemicals released.


Why is there so little reporting on this?

If you are like me, you might be wondering why you have not heard more about what happened in Ohio on the news? Well, a quick Google search will show you that Blackrock and Vanguard are two of the primary shareholders in Norfolk Southern, the train company that caused the crash. CNN is owned by Warner Discovery and Fox News is owned by Fox Corporation. And guess who has major shareholder investments in both of these companies? If you guessed Blackrock and Vanguard you would be correct! It seems obvious that someone who has major investments in all of these companies would want to keep such a major blunder that would undoubtedly hurt sales to a minimum.


So, what is Norfolk Southern doing to compensate those affected by the crash?

The EPA has asserted the responsibility of Norfolk Southern to clean up the mess that it created in East Palestine, Ohio. If they fail to comply with covering the total of the cleanup costs, they could face paying three times the total cost of the cleanup. The EPA is also requiring them to attend town meetings relating to the issue. There is also an assumption that residents will receive some sort of restitution, but the exact amount is a bit unclear.

Norfolk Southern, a company with an estimated value of $51.2 billion dollars on February 6th offered $25,000 in relief to the 5,000 residents that had to evacuate their homes in light of this horrific tragedy. That’s right, a whopping $5 per resident in relief. Another, more recent response from Norfolk Southern, cites that they are offering $1,000 to each resident in the 44413 zip code and Beaver County’s evacuation zone. However, Michael O’Shea, a Rocky River attorney, tells residents to hold off on accepting or cashing any checks from Norfolk Southern until the company offers solid assurance that this will not bar them from seeking further compensation in the future.

Another pressing concern is the value of the homes near the derailment. With all the current uncertainty of potential aftereffects, homes are likely not to sell in the months following the incident. Youngstown Columbiana Association of Realtors recently applied for grants at both the federal and state level that could assist affected homeowners with their mortgage payments, however, if the area is not determined to be a federal disaster area then residents will never receive such relief. Federal officials are hesitant to label the area as a federal disaster area because it could negatively impact Norfolk Southern fulfilling its obligation to aid in disaster cleanup.


Where do we go from here, and should the rest of us be worried about the consequences?

An evacuation order was put into place on February 5th, the order was revoked on February 15th, allowing citizens to return to their homes and assurance that the water is safe to drink. Ohio has around 75,000 farms, however there were no large or major farms in the evacuation zone. There was a large sized dairy farm three miles from the accident, but being that it was uphill, it was not substantially impacted. The long-term effects of this tragedy will likely not manifest for a while, just how far the aftereffects will spread is unknown. For now, we wait to see just how this tragedy will truly unfold.


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Why is everyone talking about East Palestine, Ohio? by Savannah Throneberry (1L)

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