What's Known About the Toxic Plume From the Ohio Train Derailment

Justine McDaniel / The Washington Post
What's Known About the Toxic Plume From the Ohio Train Derailment A train derailed near the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania on Feb. 3, causing a large fire and prompting evacuations. (photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Pennsylvania’s governor said Norfolk Southern’s response to the disaster has put first-responders and residents ‘at significant risk’

An Ohio town is reckoning with the aftermath of a train derailment that unleashed highly toxic chemicals into the air, water and ground on Feb. 3, causing a massive fire, displacing residents and threatening public health.

The derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border, has left residents uncertain and fearful about their town and the toxic mess that raises questions about the area’s water and soil.

The Environmental Protection Agency has said the air is safe to breathe and Norfolk Southern, the rail company, has pledged to clean up. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday he was “not seeing” the need for further federal assistance, though President Biden had offered it. Without the full extent of contamination known, however, environmental advocates have questioned the response, and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro has said Norfolk Southern mismanaged its response to the disaster.

“The reassurances that these front-line communities are being given that ‘We didn’t find anything terribly serious’ is just misleading,” Joe Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, told The Washington Post over the weekend.

As effects continue to emerge, here’s what to know.

What happened when the train derailed?

Part of the Norfolk Southern train derailed on Feb. 3 around 9 p.m. in East Palestine, Ohio, causing a massive fire. Fifty cars were involved in the crash and fire, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday.

Eleven of the cars that derailed were carrying hazardous materials, the NTSB said, some of which escaped during the crash and burned during the fire. Because of the risk of contamination and explosion posed by the chemicals, firefighters couldn’t put the blaze out for days. About 1,500 residents of the village, which is on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania, were told to evacuate.

On Feb. 5, a drastic temperature change in one of the rail cars created a high probability that it would explode in a “catastrophic” blast, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said at a Tuesday news briefing. Evacuations were ordered, and officials decided to allow the controlled release of vinyl chloride from the train car to avoid an explosion. It sent a plume of toxic fumes into the air.

Three days later, evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes. The Environmental Protection Agency said its air monitoring had not picked up any hazardous levels of chemicals, though some experts have said the monitoring should have been more robust.

What caused the accident?

The derailment appeared to have been caused by a mechanical problem on one rail car, NTSB board member Michael Graham said at a Feb. 5 briefing in East Palestine. The agency has already identified which rail car caused the accident, saying a wheel bearing on that car appeared to have overheated.

The information released so far is preliminary as federal investigators continue piecing together what happened. The NTSB, which routinely investigates plane and train crashes, will release a preliminary report in early-to-mid March.

Surveillance videos have shown that the train was on fire as it passed through Leetonia, Ohio, before it derailed, according to the fire company in Leetonia, which is about 13 miles from East Palestine. The NTSB said that the train’s crew members received an alarm indicating a mechanical issue before an emergency brake went on. No injuries were reported.

Misinformation about the derailment, including claims without evidence that it was intentional, has circulated on social media. Federal investigators have found nothing to indicate that the train was purposely derailed.

What was the train carrying?

Vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate were the primary chemicals released in the crash, Ohio EPA spokesman James Lee told The Washington Post. When vinyl chloride burns, it releases hydrogen chloride and phosgene. In addition, ethyl hexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether also leaked from the train cars, according to a Norfolk Southern document posted by the EPA.

All of those six chemicals can be harmful to humans, experts say, depending on the amount and length of exposure. Neither Norfolk Southern nor authorities have quantified exactly how much was released into the air and spilled on the ground. Environmental experts have told The Post that it’s possible the fire also created other highly toxic substances, such as dioxins.

Exposure to the chemicals can cause various symptoms, such as ear, eye and throat irritation or dizziness, nausea and headache. Vinyl chloride is a carcinogen; phosgene is a highly toxic gas; butyl acrylate produces poisonous gases when burned; ethyl hexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether are irritants.

“I wouldn’t want to be exposed to any of them in significant amounts,” Erik D. Olson said in an email. Olson is a senior strategic director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “They all pose hazards if inhaled.”

Though the fire and chemical release initially created air pollution, EPA and state investigators now must determine how much contamination got into the ground and whether it will leach into drinking water, contaminate soil and have other dangerous effects over time.

“It is unclear how much of this volatile chemical escaped into the air or burned before entering surface waters and soil, but vinyl chloride is highly mobile in soils and water and can persist for years in groundwater," said Cornell University soil and crop scientist Murray McBride, recommending that farmers test wells and surface soils in the months to come.

How are residents affected?

About 1,500 residents were told to evacuate, but others outside the one-mile evacuation zone, including some over the border in Pennsylvania, also left their homes. Some have told The Washington Post that they’re worried about staying in East Palestine and don’t feel like they have enough information. For many, the debacle has meant missing work, spending money on temporary lodging and dealing with other issues.

A strong chemical odor remained in East Palestine this week, and residents reported symptoms such as headaches and nausea, which state and EPA officials said can happen even when chemicals are present at levels not considered harmful.

On Tuesday, state officials recommended residents on the East Palestine municipal water system use bottled water until test results are back for public water. On Wednesday, however, DeWine tweeted that new water testing results revealed no detection of contaminants in East Palestine’s municipal water system. “With these test results, @OhioEPA is confident that the municipal water is safe to drink,” the governor stated.

Until their wells are tested, residents with private wells need to use bottled water, Ohio health director Bruce Vanderhoff said Tuesday. Residents can obtain well testing and bottled water by calling a local hotline.

The environmental advocacy group Earthjustice said Wednesday that DeWine should declare a state of emergency to unlock more federal aid. Some residents have filed class-action lawsuits against Norfolk Southern, seeking monetary compensation and medical monitoring for all affected.

How are wildlife and the environment affected?

About 3,500 fish in four local waterways were killed after contaminants spilled into one waterway as a result of the crash and spread, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Mary Mertz said at the Tuesday news briefing. Twelve species of fish were affected, none of which are endangered.

The creeks affected flow into Little Beaver Creek, which is designated as a state scenic river. Wildlife officials will be monitoring the hellbender, an endangered giant salamander, Mertz said, to find out whether any were affected. So far, they haven’t found any dead hellbenders.

Despite anecdotal reports of animal sickness, state officials said they had not collected any evidence of species other than fish suffering from the chemical spill. Ohio Department of Agriculture Director Brian Baldrige said his department has been in contact with veterinarians and others. “To this date, there is nothing that we’ve seen in the livestock community that causes any concerns,” he said Tuesday.

What about drinking water?

The initial spill and fire created a large plume of toxics that flowed into the Ohio River and has been moving down the river for several days, Tiffani Kavalec, head of surface water for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said at the briefing. Water officials are tracking the plume in real time, but it is not expected to affect drinking water sources downriver, Kavalec said.

As the chemicals pass by, intakes for public water supplies along the Ohio River are being closed or the water is being treated. The contaminants have been measured at “very, very low levels” that can be treated, she said. Because the river is large, the chemicals have been diluted and will continue spreading as they move, Kavalec said.

On Tuesday, the plume was near Huntington, W.Va., Kavalec said.

What is Norfolk Southern’s response?

The EPA has notified Norfolk Southern of its liability for potential costs of the contamination, EPA regional administrator Debra Shore said in Tuesday statement. DeWine said he had spoken to Norfolk Southern’s CEO, Alan Shaw, and said Shaw had committed to paying “for everything.” He said the state would hold the rail company accountable for the disaster.

Norfolk Southern set up a $1 million fund this week and said it planned future charitable donations in East Palestine. Working out of a “family assistance center," the company has reimbursed evacuated residents for expenses, saying more than $1.5 million has gone to more than 1,000 families and some businesses. It is also providing bottled water to residents and reimbursed the local fire department for compressed-air packs.

Residents have to sign up for the home air testing, must pick up bottled water at the assistance center, and must live within a certain Zip code to get reimbursements, although the rail company offered aid to the entire Zip code Wednesday after previously only offering it to those in the evacuation zone. Residents also need a photo ID, proof of residency and a Social Security card to use the assistance center, some told The Post.

The tracks were quickly cleared so that trains could keep running through, with the wreckage placed to the side. State officials said that cleanup crews, including those excavating butyl acrylate that puddled on the tracks, are pausing when a train comes through.

In addition to cleanup and testing already underway, which included installing a dam and pumping water from a stream for treatment, the rail company has also said it will install wells to monitor groundwater.

“We are committed to East Palestine today and in the future,” Shaw said in a statement. “We will be judged by our actions. We are cleaning up the site in an environmentally responsible way, reimbursing residents affected by the derailment, and working with members of the community to identify what is needed to help East Palestine recover and thrive.”

Josh Shapiro, the governor of Pennsylvania, criticized Norfolk Southern’s response in a Wednesday letter to Shaw, saying that mismanagement by the company had put first-responders and residents “at significant risk.” He said the rail company’s personnel made decisions without talking to state and local agencies, caused first-responders to have a lack of awareness, gave state officials inaccurate information about the impact of the controlled release of vinyl chloride and “failed to explore” alternatives to the controlled release that might have been safer.

“Norfolk Southern has repeatedly assured us of the safety of their rail cars — in fact, leading Norfolk Southern personnel described them to me as ‘the Cadillac of rail cars’ — yet despite these assertions, these were the same cars that Norfolk Southern personnel rushed to vent and burn without gathering input from state and local leaders,” Shapiro wrote.

What happens now?

The EPA is monitoring air quality and helping state officials with water testing. The EPA stopped monitoring for phosgene and hydrogen chloride on Tuesday, the agency said, because vinyl chloride, which produces them when on fire, is no longer burning. The EPA is also helping Norfolk Southern conduct in-home air testing, which residents can request.

DeWine said Tuesday that President Biden had offered other federal assistance if it becomes necessary but said the state had not needed it.

Workers are cleaning up the accident site, removing massive amounts of soil and water. The state will then work on long-term plans for ensuring the water and soil are safe, said Ohio EPA on-scene coordinator Kurt Kollar on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the NTSB will determine the cause of the derailment.

DeWine said Tuesday his administration would begin providing daily updates about the situation.

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