WE ACT Calls for Improved Railroad and Chemical Safety in Wake of Ohio Train Derailment

February 17, 2023
Contact: Chris Dobens, 718-679-8542, chris@weact.org


NEW YORK — WE ACT for Environmental Justice today urged the Biden administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Transportation Safety Board to continue their investigations into the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio and hold accountable those who are responsible; safeguard the immediate and long-term health and well-being of this community and its residents, ensuring adequate medical care and financial restitution is provided; and enact legislation to address the failings in railroad and chemical transportation safety.

For the past two weeks, residents have faced mixed messages and uncertainty around health and safety after the accident on February 3, 2023. The hazardous materials on board the train included vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen that, when burned – as it was in this incident, produces hydrogen chloride, a chemical that is corrosive to human tissue. Exposure to other chemicals released in the accident are known to cause irritation to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract.

Residents living within a mile of the derailment and subsequent fire were evacuated, but five days later they were encouraged to return to their homes, assured by the State’s Governor and other officials that it was safe to do so.

“Residents shouldn’t have to fear for their health, in the immediate or long-term,” said Peggy Shepard, Co-founder and Executive Director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “We are urging all agencies at the federal level to quickly ensure the safety of residents, while mitigating for easily identifiable contamination and impact. That has to be most critical right now. Accountability for this accident should and will be addressed, as well as future consideration for the potential impacts this incident has unfortunately exposed.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been monitoring the air and water in the area and conducting voluntary home screenings for both vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride, reporting no traces found in the homes inspected so far. However, residents have reported skin and eye irritations as well as nausea.

The full extent of air, surface, and groundwater contamination will not be known for years; however, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has confirmed that thousands of fish have died due to exposure to these chemicals, and the Ohio Department of Agriculture is investigating reports of livestock poisonings and deaths.

This incident raises concerns about both railroad safety and the transportation of hazardous chemicals, many of which are transported and stored in vulnerable communities. According to STAND.earth, approximately 25 million Americans live within the potential blast zone of a train accident involving trains carrying oil. An analysis by USA Today found that hazardous materials have spilled or leaked 5,000 times over the last decade.

A similar incident involving the derailment of a train carrying vinyl chloride in New Jersey in 2012 led to calls for trains carrying hazardous materials being required to have electronic braking systems. The Trump administration blocked its implementation.

“Clearly the regulations regarding the safety of transporting hazardous chemicals by rail are insufficient. And the impact on this community goes far beyond the environmental damage,” noted Shepard. “In addition to immediate health concerns, there is the long-term impact on their health, and mental health. And there is also the economic impact, as residents and employers who can afford to move likely will, which means those who have no choice but to remain will be left with homes they likely won’t want to inhabit yet will have difficulty selling – even at a loss. We cannot afford to let this happen again. We need swift and comprehensive action.”

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WE ACT for Environmental Justice is a Northern Manhattan membership-based organization whose mission is to build healthy communities by ensuring that people of color and/or low-income residents participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices. WE ACT has offices in New York and Washington, D.C. Visit us at weact.org and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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