On February 3, 2023, at approximately 9:30 p.m., a 53-car train derailment occurred near the border of Pennsylvania in East Palestine, Ohio and Beaver County, PA. According to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), emergency aid crews from Beaver County responded to the scene where railcars had “caught fire throughout the wreckage.”
Highly toxic chemicals of vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride were part of the burning wreckage in at least “five railcars.” “Around 11:30 p.m, PEMA reports a federal EPA official telephoned them advising “there was no current impact to PA” from the burning wreckage. However, toxic chemicals were burning into the air of the surrounding area. Millions of affected residents deserve immediate answers. On February 6, 2023, three days after the derailment and burning wreckage, authorities decided to fully release and burn the vinyl chloride, sending a massive plume of hydrogen chloride and the toxic gas phosgene into the air. Not only is vinyl chloride flammable, but it’s also a vital organ carcinogen. A sick recipe for cancer-causing diseases.
On the same date, Governor DeWine of Ohio issued evacuation recommendations for residents within a 1-mile by 2-mile area surrounding East Palestine. DeWine stated at the time that this was a matter of “life or death.” Two days later, officials stated residents could safely return home.
Environmental regulators have been monitoring the air and water in surrounding communities and have claimed so far, the air quality remains safe and drinking water supplies have not been affected. Residents both in and outside of the one-to-two-mile radius are telling a different story.
One farmer ten miles from the radius published a video of the sudden death of her chickens shortly after the controlled chemical burn. Another farmer posted pictures of discolored eggs laid by chickens after the derailment. Nearby residents have taken to social media documenting lung issues and intense headaches. Others have reported scores of dead fish in their local waterways. The Ohio River runs nearby, which is used for a water source by some municipalities including down-state regions. One of the biproducts of the controlled chemical burning is hydrogen chloride which easily binds onto water such as the vapor of the atmosphere. Atmospheric winds have the potential to blow these toxic chemicals across a 200-mile radius according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. On February 10, the EPA confirmed that chemicals from this incident and chemical burn have entered the Ohio River Basin which is home to 25 million people.
To date, officials have not released any data or charts on the water quality for the evacuation area or the various waterways connected to the Ohio River. The public deserves to be immediately informed about the quality of drinking water.
Instead, Governor Shapiro has not issued any emergency declaration nor guidance for water and air safety and has been in Arizona this past weekend, while federal officials such as U.S. Secretary of Transportation Peter Buttigieg spoke today to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference in Washington D.C. and refused to even discuss this major disaster, while joking about the “safety risks of balloons.”
Returning citizens to the evacuation zone have been left in the dark. What sort of chemical fallout remains after the explosion, detonation and burn plumes? Can residents and school children be exposed to carcinogens through HVAC systems in their homes, schools and businesses? What are the effects on pets and livestock and what is the radius of those effects? What kind of air and water samples have been taken by officials so far and what is considered “safe?”
For those in the area of a one-mile radius from East Palestine, Norfolk Southern Railroad has hired an independent contractor to work with local law enforcement, the U.S. EPA, and state officials to take air and water quality samples and provide results at no charge to residents. In the interim, officials are urging those with private water wells to use bottled water, which will be supplied free by Norfolk Southern for those within that one-mile radius. It is a question of concern, however, that the one-mile radius is woefully inadequate to protect the citizens of Pennsylvania impacted by this disaster.
In the meantime, although PEMA does not appear to yet have a website about this incident for Pennsylvanians, citizens can go to: response.epa.gov/EastPalestineTrainDerailment for more information and updates.
Many questions about the scope of this environmental disaster remain unanswered. Transparency is a must and lives are potentially at stake. As the Chair of the Veterans and Emergency Preparedness Committee, I am seeking answers and will report our findings as they are discovered.
Senator Doug Mastriano is a Pennsylvania State Senator representing the 33rd District. He is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.