Residents in East Palestine, Ohio are expressing increasing concern about their safety in the aftermath of a train derailment last week, which resulted in the intentional release of hazardous chemicals to avoid an explosion that officials believed would have been much more dangerous. The derailment and subsequent concerns of pollution and contamination are worrying many Ohioans in Stark and Tuscarawas counties.
State officials evacuated residents during the controlled burn, but now that they’ve returned, questions remain. Many residents are complaining of health problems such as nausea, rashes and headaches. They report detecting chemical smells and worry about the short and long term effects of exposure to carcinogenic chemicals.
Ohio officials have assured residents that the air quality in the area is safe. The EPA released a statement detailing it’s monitoring process and says, “Since the fire went out on February 8, EPA air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment.”
Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff of the Ohio Department of Health stated,” The good news is, by the time we were at the decision point for potentially bringing people who had evacuated back into an impacted area, we had on hand air testing that told us that the air really looked pretty much like it did before this event ever happened,”
Concerns about water quality still remain. The initial chemical release resulted in over 3,500 dead fish in contaminated waterways. Officials have advised residents to use bottled water and have their wells tested. They acknowledged that waterways connected to the explosion site, including the Ohio River are contaminated and carrying hazardous materials.
Officials believe that these chemicals will dissipate and not cause harm. Tiffani Kavalec, chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s division of surface water told reporters, “There are very very low levels of volatile organic compounds in the Ohio River itself,” she said. “It appears it’s been very diluted.”
Distrust and Fear Remain
While officials are optimistic, environmental experts and advocates warn about dismissing concerns so quickly. Consumer advocate and whistleblower Erin Brockovich advised residents of East Palestine, Ohio, to “believe their own instincts” as state officials claim there’s no longer any air or water hazards.
Brockovich worries about a lack of trust between the community and government officials as well as the possibility of cumulative chemical contamination. She also points to broader issues of infrastructure and corporate responsibility.
No Direct Danger to Stark and Summit Counties
An assessment of the damage and environmental impact from the derailment and controlled burn ruled out negative impacts on most of the state, including Stark and Tuscarawas Counties. The Tuscarawas County Health Department announced Wednesday on Facebook that people were asking about possible impacts on air and water quality in the area. They noted, “At this time, there is no immediate threat to county residents, and we will post a notice if the threat level changes at any point.”
State Level Concerns
Many are pointing to state and federal issues highlighted by this incident as a matter of concern for all Ohio residents.
Air and Water Quality
According to the Health Policy Institute, Ohio ranks poorly on outdoor air quality and much lower than other states. An article in the Ohio Capital Journal details the negative impacts this pollution has on all Ohians’, but specifically on maternal and infant health.
According to Environment America, Polluters poured nearly 200 million pounds of toxic substances into U.S. waterways in 2020. Ohio’s waterways were contaminated by over 40 million pounds of these chemicals, with the Ohio River leading the way with the most toxic pollutants. Exposure to these pollutants can lead to health risks for cancer, reproductive, and developmental effects.
Many officials believe that ailing infrastructure coupled with a lack of regulation and oversight will lead to future catastrophic events. Advocates say there should be increased urgency to repair rail bridges and other related infrastructure. According to CNN, Passenger and freight rail received $66 billion in the sprawling bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021. Implementation, however, will take years.
Legislation and Regulations
According to a report by the Times Reporter, deregulation during the Trump administration could have contributed to this accident and many others. Safety rules implemented during the Obama administration were repealed by Trump at the behest of industry lobbyists. Experts believe this deregulation increased the potential for accidents like the one in Ohio to become more common.
Governor Dewine has also pushed for new Federal regulations in the aftermath of the incident. In a press conference, he said he was informed that the railroad company was not legally required to alert anyone in Ohio about the toxic cargo because only some of the cars on the Norfolk Southern train that derailed earlier this month were carrying hazardous materials. “Frankly, if this is true, and I’m told it’s true, this is absurd,” DeWine said. “Congress needs to take a look at how these things are handled.”