The East Palestine Train Derailment

Shannon Henschel

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2024

Earlier this month, an environmental disaster caused by a train derailment in a west Ohio town has resulted in close scrutiny from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, resulting in a chemical spill of millions of liters of toxic liquids. Among the spill’s immediate effects were chemical leakage into local water supplies and air pollution originating from a controlled burn. The EPA has since stepped in to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the clean-up, but unanswered compliance questions still remain.

The toxic chemicals spilled include vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene. Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens, but there are limited studies on the carcinogenic effects of the other chemicals. Consequently, the long-term effects of this accident are largely unpredictable.

The water

As soon as the train derailment happened, the chemicals spilled and immediately began absorbing into the ground. These chemicals initially polluted nearby streams, which led to widespread death of wildlife in the area. The pollutants then made their way to the Ohio River, a major United States river spanning a thousand miles and providing drinking water to 25 million people. This led to residents of the area being rightfully fearful of drinking tap water.

The air

Three days after the train derailment, authorities evacuated the area surrounding the wreckage and punctured the train cars to drain the leftover toxic chemicals into pits, as they feared an explosion was imminent. Authorities then conducted a controlled chemical burn, which created a large dark cloud over East Palestine and has deposited additional toxic byproducts into the air. The main byproduct of concern is acrolein, a product of fossil fuel combustion and which is highly irritating to the respiratory tract, skin, and eyes.

The clean-up

The effects of this disaster on East Palestine have potential to be long-lasting and devastating. The EPA has made it clear that the railway transportation company will be held financially liable for the totality of the current harms affecting the town. The EPA has outlined the duties that Norfolk Southern must comply with, including identifying and purifying contaminated soil and water resources, reimbursing the EPA for cleaning services offered to East Palestine residents, and attending and participating in public meetings at the request of the EPA. The EPA issued this administrative order pursuant to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which gives EPA the authority to order entities responsible for pollution to clean it up.

Interestingly, this incident has brought to light compliance violations not only committed by Norfolk Southern, but by railroad transportation companies widely. The inspector general of the Transportation Department highlighted weaknesses in the Federal Railroad Administration’s oversight of hazardous materials. One oversight and violation for which Norfolk Southern is guilty of, is not using the required type of railroad cars when transporting hazardous or flammable materials. An Obama-era rule required enhanced tank car standards and operational controls for trains transporting highly hazardous or flammable materials. Three of the cars involved in Norfolk Southern’s crash met these enhanced standards, but the rest did not. Information on how these violations will be addressed is not yet available.

The long-term effects

The long-term health effects on humans, animals, and ecosystems when exposed to many of these toxic chemicals is unknown. This has ignited health concerns of residents and prompted studies on the potential effects. Other uncontrollable factors that could exacerbate the presence and impact of the chemicals include weather patterns, such as strong winds kicking up chemicals from the ground and warmth from the summer months altering the chemicals.

Another potential issue affecting the victims of Norfolk Southern’s violations is East Palestine’s housing market. Many residents have evacuated their homes following the incident, but the ability to leave East Palestine permanently will likely be difficult for homeowners. Since the long-term effects of the train crash are unknown, buyers in the western Ohio area will potentially be deterred from looking there.

While the EPA has committed to holding Norfolk Southern accountable for the clean-up of the incident, no governmental body has stepped up to address how the company will be held accountable for these longer-term impacts. Ideally, the EPA will address these future impacts as their involvement continues.