On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying various toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, OH. The resulting chemical spill and fires contaminated the surrounding community and the Ohio River, which flows through 14 states and provides drinking water to more than 5 million people.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced earlier this month that it would take control of the cleanup efforts. It ordered Norfolk Southern to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water resources, pay for the costs of work performed by the EPA, and reimburse the agency for additional cleaning services offered to residents and businesses.

Residents are cleared to return to their homes while the long-term impacts of hazardous petrochemicals in the air, water, and soil remain unknown.

A plume of black smoke rises over East Palestine, Ohio

The train released a variety of toxic chemicals, including:

Vinyl chloride, a colorless gas that is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics and is highly flammable and decomposes to make toxic fumes. According to the National Library of Medicine, it is also carcinogenic and can cause other health issues.

Butyl acrylate, a clear liquid that is used for making paints, sealants and adhesives. It is flammable and can cause skin, eye, and respiratory infections.

Ethylhexyl acrylate, a colorless liquid used to make paints and plastics. It can cause skin and respiratory irritation and, under moderate heat, produce hazardous vapor.

Ethylene glycol monobutyl, a colorless liquid used as a solvent for paint and inks, as well as some drycleaning solutions. It is classed as acutely toxic, able to cause serious or permanent injury, and highly flammable. Vapors can irritate the eyes and nose, and ingestion can cause headache and vomiting.

Waterkeeper Alliance and Train Safety

As this public health and environmental disaster unfolds, advocacy groups including Waterkeeper Alliance, renewed their challenge to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) 2018 repeal of a regulation requiring electronic brake systems for trains carrying hazardous and flammable material.

In 2018, the federal agencies charged with regulating hazardous materials on trains removed safety rules requiring modern braking systems. They failed to conduct mandated safety tests, used inaccurately low estimates of accidents and risks, and restricted public participation.

Earthjustice, on behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Riverkeeper, Washington Conservation Action, and Stand, appealed the rule. Agencies failed to respond, siding with companies like Norfolk Southern, which lobbied against more stringent safety requirements. The DOT’s silence has meant that explosive tank cars continue to travel through towns and neighborhoods with “Civil War-era braking systems.”

Earthjustice’s appeal focused on trains carrying large amounts of volatile crude oil in long unit trains, and it is not clear whether the Norfolk Southern train would have been covered by DOT’s repealed brake system requirement. What is clear, however, is that the agency failed to require modern brake systems for most trains carrying explosively toxic materials.

Read the full Waterkeeper statement here.

Deteriorating Conditions and Lack of Regulation

The derailment comes after a decade-long industry-led decline in train safety. In 2015, an Obama administration transportation rule defined “high-hazard flammable trains” (HHFT) as trains with more than 20 cars in a single block carrying hazardous materials, or 35 located throughout the train. The Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio is not a HHFT as a result.

In 2017, the Trump administration rescinded part of that rule intended to improve train braking systems nationwide. The Biden administration has not required modernized braking systems nor updated the definition of HHFTs. Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern frequently leads the industry in train length and weight, and joins other railroad companies in cutting workforces by nearly 30 percent between 2011 and 2021.

Reductions in safety measures and workforce, combined with heavier, longer trains, is a recipe for disaster. The National Transportation Safety Board recently stated that the East Palestine derailment was “100 percent preventable.”

“Railroads crisscross the nation running along our waterfronts, bridging our rivers, and rolling through our neighborhoods,” said Sean Dixon, Executive Director at Puget Soundkeeper. “Reliance on century-old braking technology is unacceptably negligent. The DOT cannot continue to delay modernization of this vital aspect of rail safety. Hazardous, flammable cargos of dangerous chemicals and volatile hydrocarbons present an undeniable threat to public health and the environment—a threat that must be mitigated, immediately.”