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What We Know About the Train Derailment in Ohio

What effects has this had on the environment?

A couple of weeks ago, a train traveling from Illinois to Pennsylvania derailed in a town in Ohio. Some of the cars were carrying hazardous materials. Here’s what we know about the event.

On February 3, 2023, a train operated by Norfolk Southern Railroad derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, roughly 50 miles northwest of Pittsburg and about three miles from the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, in the evening. Thirty-eight of the 150 freight cars derailed during the accident. Eleven of the derailed cars contained hazardous materials; five of these were loaded with vinyl chloride, a human carcinogen.

In the days that followed, the EPA performed air monitoring and only found “low levels of [volatile organic compounds] and nitrogen dioxide” in certain areas. Otherwise, no concerns were identified, with the exception of particular matter.

On February 6, Norfolk Southern performed a controlled burn of the vinyl chloride. According to a news release from the Governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, the fumes produced from the release “can be deadly if inhaled,” putting people at risk—depending on where they are in relation to the burning—of health problems, including burns, lung damage and death. (People were ordered to evacuate before the controlled burn and were told they could return on February 8.)

According to the CDC, “[w]hen burned or heated to a high enough temperature, vinyl chloride decomposes to hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and traces of phosgene."

Continued air monitoring from February 8, the day the fire went out, to February 14, found no health concerns related to the derailment, per the EPA. As of February 16, the EPA has found no vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride in 500 homes.

What impact has this incident had on the environment? For one, it’s affected aquatic life. It’s estimated that 3,500 aquatic animals in four runs and creeks have died, per the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.

In addition, a chemical plume of butyl acrylate has been identified in the Ohio River, though levels are below 3 parts per billion (equivalent to 0.003 parts per million, or ppm), as of February 16. The odor threshold of butyl acrylate is 0.035 ppm, and a "[National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-approved approved full facepiece respirator" is recommended at 2 ppm, per the New Jersey Department of Health.

East Palestine’s municipal water has also been deemed “safe to drink,” according to a second news release from Governor Mike DeWine. Drinking water is formed by taking water from five wells, which sit 56 feet underground, and treating it. No contaminants were found in the water of these wells, which also have a “solid steel casing, or treated water.

EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore said in a statement, “EPA Region 5’s number one priority is—and will always be—the health and safety of communities across the region. That’s why as soon as EPA was notified of the Norfolk Southern train derailment on Friday, February 3, EPA personnel were on-site by 2 a.m. Saturday morning to assist with air monitoring. Since then, EPA has been boots-on-the-ground, leading robust air-quality testing—including with the state-of-the-art and a mobile analytical laboratory—in and around East Palestine."

Update: Feb. 23, 4:16 p.m. ET—On February 21, the EPA announced that Norfolk Southern will be responsible for performing "all necessary actions associated with the cleanup."

About the Author

Alex Saurman is the Content Editor for Environmental Protection.

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