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The disaster of East Palestine, Ohio

I grew up in Ohio. My parents and brother still live there. I care about the place dearly, despite not having lived there for 14 years. That’s only part of the reason the train derailment on Feb. 3, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio, bothers me as much as it does from afar.

I first read about the derailment the day it happened, likely coming to it through reddit. Even I didn’t know exactly where East Palestine was—it’s NOT Palestine, Ohio, which is near Dayton, but rather, closer to the Pennsylvania border near Youngstown. Fortunately, my family lives a solid 90 minutes away from East Palestine, but the story hits close to home for historical reasons more than just geographic ones.

My grandfather worked for Conrail for 35 years before he retired in 1985. I was just a baby then, but I was close with my grandfather and we talked about trains frequently. I had a railroad spike and a Conrail piggy bank in my bedroom as a kid. Whenever trains would pass in the background of my brother’s soccer games at Garfield Park, my grandpa would have me count the number of cars. “Cha-ching,” he or my grandmother would say, signifying that Conrail (and later CSX) running meant the company was doing well.

With all that context out of the way: This derailment is an environmental and economic disaster of the highest order.

According to an NPR report, the “EPA stated that ‘materials released during the incident were observed and detected in samples from Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek, and the Ohio River.’ The letter also stated that materials were observed entering storm drains.”

Of note, 5 million people get their drinking water from just the Ohio River. This doesn’t count all the wells and tributaries that are now full of poison. Norfolk Southern, the railroad company that operated the derailed train and owns this ecological atrocity, previously disclosed that its derailment unleashed two toxic chemicals: Butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride.

But wait, there’s more!

In its letter to the company, EPA listed the three other chemicals involved in the derailment: ethylhexyl acrylate, which can cause burning on the skin and in the eyes, coughing and shortness of breath; isobutylene, which can make people dizzy and drowsy; and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether which can cause coughing, dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, nausea, and weakness if inhaled.

Now people are reporting dead fish and chickens, despite officials saying it’s safe to return home.

[Insert “hmm” emoji here]

According to another report from WKYC, Dr. Ryan Marino, a medical toxicologist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, says “The risk of toxicity is greatest in long-term repeated exposures that would not be expected in this case.”

So, like people who live there and drink the water. Got it.

“The biggest immediate risk of vinyl chloride is its flammability, and once destroyed even the breakdown products of concern (hydrochloric acid and phosgene) are further degraded and diluted very rapidly.”

Hydrochloric acid…I know that one! It’s the one in stomach acid!

I haven’t taken chemistry since my cellular biology course in college, so I won’t speculate as to the chemical and long-term exposure effects. But it doesn’t sound good!

How did we get here? Well, probably easy enough to blame precision scheduled railroading “PSR.” That might look like a logistics madlib, but PSR is far more insidious-capitalist than a word game. This model looks to extract maximum value from every train run, but does so with significant risks that lead to worse oversight and more potential for disaster. This reddit comment does a great job explaining it:

Lest we forget, the government nuked the railroad workers’ ability to strike back in November 2022. TLDR: Trains are still too important to the economy from the sheer bulk of shipping they do, so the rail companies win with their “optimized” scheduling to maximize profit, and the workers lose. Not much else to see here.Oh, and now millions of people may need to worry about the long-term effects of toxic chemicals leeching into their drinking water.

My grandfather would have likely been on that train, had he been working on the railroad today. He ran lines primarily in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. He is now likely spinning in his grave about all this—fortunately, his cemetery is far enough from East Palestine that he won’t be swimming in vinyl chloride.

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