Toxic Trains

A Clear & Present Danger That’s Been Ignored & Derailed for Three Decades

    icon Mar 16, 2023
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The recent Norfolk Southern 150-car train derailment that happened in East Palestine Ohio over a month ago, spilling hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic and extremely lethal chemicals into the air, soil, and water should be sending up red flags across the country.

Not only should we be fearful about the ways these chemicals are shipped coast-to-coast in trains & trucks  instead of utilizing methods less prone to catastrophe such as pipelines, but more importantly we should be outraged about the impossibility to adequately respond to these toxic disasters once they happen, and have zero tolerance for lawmakers willing to roll over for lobbyists when it comes to enforcing strict liability upon haulers of these toxic chemicals.

Norfolk Southern, CSX, and other railway shippers have lobbied Congress for two decades not to adopt legislation that would mandate stricter maintenance of track, improvement of emergency braking systems, and replacement of bearings, which was the purported cause of the disaster in East Palestine; and for the past four administrations, none of these measures have been adopted.  Indeed, days after the derailment instead of visiting East Palestine, President Joe Biden was visiting the Ukraine, where lawmakers have committed $1.1 trillion dollars instead of replacing safety systems on toxic trains.

As for the agencies responsible for addressing this catastrophe, Dept. of Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg  has been more focused on bringing racial equity into the ranks of railway personnel rather than enforcing laws protecting the integrity of the mechanics; and Environmental Protection Agency director Jennifer Granholm has been mainly hawking the incentives of green technology.   Days after the derailment the EPA was monitoring the air for toxic chemicals but not the water, and after letting citizens go back into their homes, not even 200 homes close to the site where officials allowed a ‘controlled burn’ were even screened.

In terms of the untold magnitude of this disaster, the Ohio River provides drinking water to one-tenth of the U.S. population.  Dozens of cars carrying 1.6 million pounds of dangerous chemicals such as Phosgene - one of the single most poisonous gasses created from burning vinyl chloride, which was developed and used in World War I - was allowed to be ignited in a controlled release, exposing 4,700 citizens of East Palestine and beyond.

Ethylene gas is able to seep into nooks and crannies and it toxicity may not be known for another decade or two, which is the way toxic gas works.  Progressive lawmakers are constantly screaming about the horrors of CO2 and methane; but when it comes to releasing tons of actual hazardous chemicals -- vinyl chloride, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol -- over entire regions under the plume of an actual mushroom cloud, apparently the EPA is more concerned about global warming.

Winter Noise • Sharing the Mess Across State Lines

As we go to press, more than 700 tons of contaminated soil and nearly two million gallons of liquid have been collected from the derailment site, Ohio officials say, with much more left to clean up under order by the EPA.  Moreover, removing these vast amounts of contaminated soil & water will now involve transporting these materials yet again to at least seven different licensed hazardous waste disposal facilities across four states: Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Texas.

According to NPR, the tangle became even more complicated when the EPA enacted a one-day pause on Norfolk Southern's removal operations last weekend after officials in Texas and Michigan raised concerns about East Palestine waste coming to disposal facilities in their states.

"Why are these materials not being taken somewhere closer? Is there something these jurisdictions know that we don't know?" said Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official of Harris County, Texas, after news broke last week that 30 truckloads of contaminated firefighting water were arriving each day to Deer Park, a suburb of Houston.

Afterward, officials announced several new disposal sites for the East Palestine waste, including a landfill in Indiana — which prompted objection from yet another state official, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb. "The materials should go to the nearest facilities, not move from the far eastern side of Ohio to the far western side of Indiana," he said.

The controversy underscores the complexities and paradoxical  impossibility of executing a meticulous cleanup process that officials must now expedite as quickly as possible.  Experts warn that it will likely take years to complete the cleanup of East Palestine – if it can ever be considered truly complete.

Five tank cars held close to 900,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic industrial chemical that has been linked to liver damage in cases of high levels of exposure. Because the derailment caused a fire that lasted for days, firefighters used more than a million gallons of water to fight the flames. "So it's not just the initial spill of chemicals into the soil, but now thousands of gallons of water that are also trying to be picked up and carted off-site.

So far, more than 1.8 million gallons of wastewater have been collected from the derailment site, along with 700 tons of contaminated soil, according to the latest figures from the office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Because every aspect of the cleanup must follow regulations that govern the handling of hazardous materials – from collection of the contaminated soil and water, to its transportation away from the derailment site, to its long-term storage and treatment at licensed facilities around the country - the frequency that these Toxic Trains travel across the country daily only underscores the fact that enforcing their safety should be our number one priority - just as it should have been twenty years ago.

According to the EPA, more than 1.2 million gallons of contaminated firefighting water was sent to Texas Molecular outside of Houston. Another 320,000 gallons were sent to U.S. Ecology Romulus in Michigan, and nearly 100,000 to a facility in Vickery, Ohio. Hundreds of tons of soil were taken to a facility in Michigan. Yet more is destined for incinerators in Grafton and East Liverpool, Ohio, and a landfill in Roachdale, Ind. Combined, those sites do not have enough capacity to hold all of the hazardous waste from East Palestine, officials said this week, meaning they are still looking for others.

It's worth noting that many contaminated sites never reach a state in which the cleanup is considered complete. Of the nearly 1,800 hazardous waste sites that have ever been included on the EPA's list of highest-priority cleanup sites, only about 450 have been cleaned up to the extent to which they could be removed from the list. East Palestine is not on this list and may never be.

Closer to Home • Train Derailments in the Great Lakes Bay Region

Back in the fall of 1999, a train derailment occurred that involved two CSX grain cars in Old Town Saginaw on tracks lining Niagara Street blocks from the REVIEW offices. Prior to that, the most serious train derailment in the tri-cities occurred back on July 22, 1989 when a CSX train with tanker cars containing styrene, acrylonitrile, chlorine, styrene monomer, inhibited methylcholorosilanes,acrylic acid, petroleum naphtha, paraformaldehyde, and ethyl chloride went off the tracks in Freeland.

Derailments occur at a frequency that is more than disquieting, especially given the nature of many hazardous and toxic chemicals transported via train.  The Freeland derailment affected 400 people with reported estimates of those affected reaching as high as 3,000 individuals. 

At the time of that derailment, the biggest concern existed not with the individual chemicals transported so much as what could happen with the synergistic effect if the compounds interacted with each other in combination - like the situation currently happening in Ohio.

During the time of that Freeland derailment, Dr. Fred Miller, Director of Health & Safety at the Environmental Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. explained to the REVIEW:  "The biggest potential for disaster existed with the acrylonitrile and silane that was being transported. Silane was identified by a railroad study conducted by Karch & Associates as among the most dangerous chemicals transported along the rail line."

According to Miller, the railways at one time attempted to remove these cars from their 'regular cargo'.  They wanted a 'flag-out', which means a special train involving speeds under 30 mph and the use of buffer cars around the chemical car. Flag-outs also involve special routing around railyards and population centers. 12 kinds of silanes were listed among the most dangerous chemicals, and methylchlorasilane - the type that derailed in Freeland back in 1989 - was among them.

However, the Interstate Commerce Commission denied the request by the rail companies to charge special rates for the flag-outs, in effect forcing them to carry these chemicals with regular cargo. Since that disaster, the situation has not changed.

A medium size chlorine car is about 48 tons and a large one averages 90 tons. According to Miller, who sat on the local Emergency Planning Commission for Washington, D.C., a worst-case scenario for the full release of a chlorine tank car could leave a 40-mile toxic plume over Washington, D.C.

Back in 1979 a chlorine car was involved in a derailment in Ontario and 250,000 people were evacuated.  Concluded Miller at that time, "There is nothing more essential for emergency planning than to know what the company knows about the worst case scenario they can pose in your community.  You should demand to know what the worst case scenarios are for al chemicals transported in your community, and if your local Emergency Planning Commission has not obtained these documents they are wimps. They are not doing their job and are covering up the dangers in your community."

While Saginaw County's Emergency Planning Commission has developed 'Cameo' plans for various situations involving train derailments, according to Scott Toby of Michigan State University's Right-to-Know task force, there are only a defined number of chemicals that companies have to respond to due to existing loopholes in right-to-know provisions.

Back in 1990, based on data from the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Response Center and various other sources, Susan L. Cutter and John Tiefenbacher wrote in American Demographics that Saginaw-Bay City-Midland experience the third largest chemical accident rate in the country. The Chicago metro area had the most chemical accidents, clocking in with 54 between 1982 and 1986, when the study was conducted, but the tri-cities were listed with 12 such reported accidents involving the release of acute toxic chemicals into the air.   Only 22 other metro areas in the United States reported five or more accidents, with large metro areas like Detroit not even appearing in the report.

Thirty years later, in an abstract written & compiled by Randall Young on the Geographic Distribution of Acute Chemical incidents between 1999 and 2008, which was published in 2015, those statistics had changed. A total of 57,975 acute incidents occurred during 1999–2008; five MSAs accounted for 40.1% of all incidents. Texas reported 41% of all incidents reported by the nine states during the 10-year study period, and Colorado reported the fewest incidents (3.4%). See here.

The number of incidents recorded for each state, as well as the proportion of fixed versus transport-related incidents, varied greatly). In six states (Iowa, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington), a greater proportion of incidents occurred at fixed facilities; in Texas, 85% of incidents occurred at fixed facilities. In three states (Colorado, North Carolina, and Wisconsin), the majority of incidents were transportation-related. At the county level, a correlation was identified between a county's urban-rural classification and the proportion of incidents that occurred in transit. On average, counties classified as rural had five times as many transit-related incidents as fixed-facility incidents

35% of the accidents involving train derailments happen in the Spring & Summer months.  And the fact that accidents are likely to happen during a workday pose a serious problem for emergency evacuation, which none of our local county leaders have yet to seriously address and educate the public about.

23% of chemical accidents occur during the transportation of chemicals, and most of these are due to containers bursting in crashes or derailments. During the period of this study, a total of 1,433 people were injured and 30 died as a result of chemical accidents in metro areas.

In conclusion, the solutions are obvious.  More frequent safety inspections and careful monitoring of traffic and vehicles at transfer sites should form an important component of emergency planning.  Combined with citizen education this would likely reduce the vulnerability of nearby residents.  Strict liability enforcement needs to be assigned to those carrying hazardous chemicals; and most importantly, the public needs to demand Congress act NOW to implement mandatory testing and compliance with safety back-up systems.

Something to think about the next time you hear that train whistle wailing around the bend.

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