On February 3rd, 2022 a train traveling from Illinois derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Train derailments have increased in recent years across the country as chronic understaffing has meant fewer critical inspections. The train that derailed in East Palestine, owned by Atlanta based-company Norfolk Southern, had been transporting hazardous materials when 38 of its roughly 100 cars left the track and overturned. Six of the cars contained vinyl chloride, which the National Institute of Health describes as a toxic “manmade colorless gas that can raise the risk of a rare form of liver cancer, as well as brain and lung cancers, leukemia, and lymphoma.” As boiling vinyl chloride gas escaped from the cars, authorities feared that a fire sparked by the derailment would set off a larger explosion. As a precaution, firefighters decided to conduct a prescribed burn of some of the wreckage. The aftermath of the derailment and prescribed burn may result in environmental and transportation catastrophe for the region.
Many other hazardous materials in addition to vinyl chloride appear to have contaminated the air, ground, and water of the surrounding community. According to an Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson, “Chemicals including vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ethers were known to have been and continue to be released to the air, surface soil and surface waters.” East Palestine sits perched on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and residents from areas in both states had to evacuate. Over 1,000 people in East Palestine left and schools closed for the week. Ohio governor Mike Dewine extended his evacuation order on February 6th but then rescinded it just two days later. In a statement to the public, the governor’s office wrote: “Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, East Palestine Fire Chief and Incident Commander Keith Drabick, and local, state, and federal officials representing both states announced today that evacuated residents in and around East Palestine can now safely return home.” The announcement followed reports by the EPA and other local organizations which claimed the water and air was not hazardous to the population: “Since the fire went out on February 8, EPA air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment.” A full 11 days after the derailment, Dewine announced on Valentine’s Day that hazardous waste workers would commence cleaning up the debris and chemicals.
The rosy picture presented by Ohio and federal agencies like the EPA suggests a disaster was narrowly averted, but does this picture square with the experiences of the residents of East Palestine?
Tara Morgan of Channel 5 Cleveland has reported disturbing claims by local residents, some of them in neighboring towns. Theresa Vigliotti from Poland, Ohio said, “I noticed my lips were numb, the soft palate of my mouth was numb, my tongue was burning and my throat was burning.” Asked about her biggest concern, Vigliotti’s response was terse: “That I’m going to get cancer and die.” An East Palestine resident identified only as “Jim” complained, “I’ve had a migraine. I’ve been dizzy, all my mucus membranes irritated. I haven’t felt very well since then.” These testimonies alone would have been enough to spark local concern, but the mystery has since been heightened by the reported arrest of journalists trying to investigate the derailment and its fallout. At governor Dewine’s press conference, police arrested NewsNation reporter Evan Lambert for “speaking too loudly” and charged him with criminal trespassing, though the charges have since been dropped. Twitter briefly suspended the investigative journalist and Grayzone contributor Jeffrey Loffredo after he reported environmental damage stemming from the derailment.
The media, corporations, and governments have a long track record of covering up environmental tragedies, but the truth will prevail as peoples’ voices become harder to silence. At least for now, unfortunately, the real impact of this release of hazardous chemicals remains unknown. Who will hold the EPA and Mike DeWine accountable in 15 years’ time, if the people of East Palestine see elevated rates of childhood cancer or other terrible maladies? As cleanup proceeds, this grim and smoldering wasteland in Ohio serves as the latest reminder that capitalism will always put profits before people and our planet.