Ohio train derailment evokes concerns for the impacted community

Nazaaha Penick, News Reporter

The small town of East Palestine, Ohio was left shaken after a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed on Feb. 3, 2023. The derailment spilled hazardous materials and sparked fears about the potential ecological and political consequences. As residents grapple with the aftermath, many are raising concerns about long-term impacts on the environment and public health.

NBC News reported that the National Transportation Safety Board officials stated that the 150-car train derailment was preventable and occurred due to technical problems.

“The ‘preventable’ and ‘traumatic’ derailment of a train carrying dangerous chemicals in Ohio can be traced to an overheated wheel bearing, which was 253 degrees hotter than the air temperature,” National Transportation Safety Board officials said Feb. 22.

NBC News listed the chemicals found near the derailment site; the list of chemicals includes substances such as Vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride is a gas that does not have any color and can catch fire easily. It is commonly used to create a type of plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is utilized for many different purposes including packaging and medical supplies. Exposure to the chemical can cause drowsiness, numbness, nausea and skin and eye irritation. 

On Feb. 25, teams made up of various federal agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started going door-to-door in East Palestine, Ohio to provide outreach to residents in the area.

FEMA Region 5 Administrator Tom Sivak commented on the event and the goals of the federal government’s outreach efforts. 

“We understand residents have a lot of questions, and we will continue to ramp up our efforts to provide information needed so families can begin to feel safe again in the community,” Sivak told reporters during a Feb. 27 press conference.

Mike DeWine, the current governor of Ohio, released an update on Feb. 22 on the status of the situation. A main focus of concern of the citizens of East Palestine was the contamination of the water supply. 

Last week, test results confirmed that East Palestine’s municipal water was free from contaminants associated with the derailment. Out of an abundance of caution, the Ohio EPA will independently test the municipal water once a week to ensure that this water source remains clean,” DeWine said. 

In a CNN town hall meeting, a 65-year-old resident named Jim Stewart who has lived in East Palestine for his entire life expressed anger at the situation. Present at the town hall were Ohio governor Mike DeWine and Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw. 

Did you shorten my life now? I want to retire and enjoy it. How are we going to enjoy it? You burned me,” Stewart said, addressing Shaw. “You’ve made me an angry man.”

Other residents of East Palestine, who lived close to the derailment site, talked about their experiences of the incident. According to a CBS article, an evacuation notice was issued for a one mile radius surrounding the location where the Feb. 5 crash occurred. Nearly two dozen people spent the night at the East Palestine school. 

CBS talked to resident Roger Walker, who spoke about his experience of the prompt evacuation. 

I literally grabbed my wife and said, ‘We’re leaving!’ So, I had no intention of coming here. We fed our cats, we were worried about them, but we came here immediately because this stuff is serious,” Walker said.

A press release on Feb. 25 from Gov. DeWine’s office states that the current removal of waste has been paused by the U.S. EPA.

The U.S. EPA ordered the transport be stopped so that additional oversight measures could be put in place to supervise where Norfolk Southern disposes of the contaminated materials,” the Feb. 25 press release reads.