This Too Shall Last
The disaster in East Palestine is not the first of its kind.
When a train crashes in a small town in middle America, it doesn’t make national news. Freight derailments occur tens of times each year between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. This is also the part of the country that boasts the heaviest concentration of freight lines, making it a much more likely place for something to go wrong.
Some crashes have been more memorable than others, however. As more details surface after the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month and the ensuing toxic chemical burn, we can certainly call it one of the biggest in recent years. At least 38 cars derailed, 20 of which were carrying toxic chemicals including vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen; the crash caused a fire that burned for days and damaged another 12 cars. Approximately 1,500 residents in a one-by-two mile radius of the crash were forced to evacuate. Three days after the initial fire began, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine authorized authorities to perform what they called a “controlled release” of the toxic chemicals remaining in five of the train car tanks. This involved dumping the chemicals into a dug trench and burning them off, with smoke pluming over the town for another several hours, reportedly to prevent the tanks from exploding. Two days after the chemical burn, residents were told it was safe to return home.
While comparisons to Chernobyl are likely overstatements, dead animals, contaminated waterways, and headaches, burning eyes, and nausea among residents near the site make for a grim picture, especially as politicians and environmental authorities promise the chemical levels in the air and water are neither a health risk nor even concerning. Meanwhile, both the EPA and the National Transportation Safety Board have yet to release a full list of the chemicals the train was carrying, as of this writing. Together with reports of a journalist being jailed while live streaming the governor’s press conference on the crash, these details have fueled a general suspicion that all is not well in East Palestine.
The event is not the first of its kind in middle America, nor is it the only one to be all but swept under the rug after an initial response, with little or no introspection from the responsible parties.
In 2015, a CSX freight train carrying hazardous materials was traveling from Ohio to Georgia when a tanker car loaded with approximately 24,000 gallons of acrylonitrile, a toxic chemical used in plastic production, collapsed on a broken axle. The car derailed in Maryville, Tennessee, a small college town 20 minutes south of Knoxville, where it caught fire that July night. Approximately 5,000 residents in the two-mile radius of the crash had to be evacuated while the fire burned for just over 17 hours, polluting the air, water, and soil for several miles surrounding.
Documentation from the EPA indicates that acrylonitrile is carcinogenic if inhaled at high levels or consumed in water; in addition to being cancerous, it can cause membrane irritation, headaches, nausea, and kidney irritation. At the time of the fire, ten police officers were hospitalized after breathing the toxic fumes, NBC News reported, while another 88 locals were ultimately treated at nearby hospitals due to respiratory issues, skin irritation, and nausea.
While Maryville residents were allowed to return home shortly after the fire was put out, concerns remained about the area’s water supply. Many residents in the area rely on private well water, much like those in East Palestine, Ohio—water the mayor had urged citizens not to drink while the chemicals were still burning. As officials drained more chemicals from another tanker into the soil, ground water samples taken a mile from the site were determined to be safe enough to drink. Two days later, dead fish were discovered in the water of a nearby creek. Meanwhile, CSX began to remove what ultimately amounted to nearly 5,000 tons of contaminated materials from the site, including water and 4,000 tons of soil.
Over the ensuing months, groundwater would be treated repeatedly with persulfate and a sodium hydroxide solution to neutralize the contamination. Still, by January 2017, tested groundwater continued to show high concentrations of acrylonitrile in five locations near the crash, 18 months after the initial chemical leak. By the two year anniversary of the fire, despite continued decontamination efforts, test wells near the site still contained traces of acrylonitrile, though only one was severe enough to be considered “contaminated,” and the area was undergoing still more chemical treatment.
Air quality was also suspect in Maryville. Even outside the evacuation area, residents reported headaches, nausea, and dizziness after stepping outside. At the time, the Blount County mayor reported concerns that the fumes contained cyanide, a byproduct of burning acrylonitrile.
If the residents of East Palestine are hopeful to see introspection from either government officials or freight companies after this crisis, the residents of Maryville may be the first to warn them against holding their breath.
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On the day after the crash, nearly 17 hours into the chemical burn, the Blount County fire chief announced he had decided to allow the chemicals leaking from the tank to burn themselves out, rather than seek to extinguish the fire. In a self-assessment of their response to the emergency one year after the fact, the same chief said the only area for improvement was in first responders’ communication during the crisis.
“All radios don’t work in every part of the county no matter what frequency you’re on,” said Chief Doug McClanahan. Otherwise, he applauded his and his team’s efforts.
The Department of Transportation has also had a chance for self-reflection, and it too let the moment pass. Despite announcing an investigation into the causes of the crash within hours of the incident occurring, with the news cycle all but forgotten, few noticed when federal investigators quietly released their conclusions two years later. The disaster was caused by the failure of a wheel bearing, they said, and the cause of the wheel bearing failure was unknown. End of story—or rather, end of effort. Life, death, and trains all just roll along.