The US has one of the most extensive rail networks in the world, but diminishing safety standards puts the environment at risk. The latest accident in Ohio has reignited concerns.
When a freight train containing hazardous waste was derailed in Ohio, a state in the Midwestern region of the United States, Heather Hulton Vantassel sprang into action.
She is one of the Ohio River’s local guardians and advocates, and executive director of the Three Rivers Waterkeeper non-profit. This is the second derailment she has had to deal with since 2021. And this time, the damage is even worse.
“We know that this community is experiencing physical ailments, there’s rashes, there’s nausea, there’s diarrhea, there’s headaches, aquatic life are dying,” she told DW. “We can see the contamination, we can smell the contamination, we can see it on the analytical results.”
The damage from the hazardous waste has reignited safety concerns in the lucrative freight industry, and has environmental activists blaming the country’s reliance on petrochemicals.
Authorities say the drinking water and air quality are safe, but locals say this ignores other contamination.
What happened in the accident?
Late on February 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in the small village of East Palestine, before catching fire. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, about 20 of its 150 carriages were carrying hazardous waste including vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, which were then released into the atmosphere.
In an attempt to neutralize some of the chemicals and stop potential explosions, authorities punctured and set fire to five wagons containing vinyl chloride, releasing vast plumes of smoke into the atmosphere.
A cocktail of chemicals flowed into nearby creeks, killing tens of thousands of fish within a 5-mile radius, and into the Ohio River. Since then, locals have reported strong chemical smells, visible chemical pollution and poor health.
Authorities have repeatedly told the thousands of residents who were evacuated from the area that it is now safe to return, with the drinking water supplies and air quality safe.
But this only tells part of the story, Hulton Vantassel said. She has been auditing data collected by the Ohio state EPA, which she says shows worryingly high levels of contamination from vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate and various hydrocarbons in the surface water, which can eventually feed into the many wells and aquifers in the area.
“The surface water is highly contaminated in certain areas. And that is really problematic because eventually that water has to go somewhere, that those chemicals have to go somewhere.”
Authorities deliberately set fire to five of the tankers to avoid an explosion.
Is US rail transport safe?
The incident has drawn sharp focus onto the safety standards of the highly profitable freight rail industry and its prolific lobbying against regulation.
The derailment might have been avoided if the railway company’s alarm system had given engineers an earlier warning that bearings were overheating, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board said on Thursday with the release of a preliminary investigation.
The US has one of the most extensive rail networks in the world. But it is almost exclusively used for freight, and is owned and maintained by a handful of private transport giants, which together spend hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbying.
Rail workers and unions have bemoaned mass layoffs and a declining culture of safety. Much of this has been blamed on the widespread adoption of so-called Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), which improves efficiency, but according to its detractors, is just a blunt cost-cutting measure that sacrifices safety for profits. Since 2017, railroads have slashed their workforce by 30%.
Five of the workers caught up in Norfolk Southern’s mass layoffs were in the East Palestine area and were responsible for the maintenance of equipment detectors that may have identified the fault with this train, Christopher Hand from the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen told the Washington Post.
A 2019 investigation by Vice News found that overworked rail workers were given barely enough time to walk the length of the train when inspecting carriages, trains were getting longer and more haphazardly assembled, inspection points were closed, and a culture of fear was instilled in the much-diminished workforce.
At the time, workers warned that lax safety standards would eventually lead to a catastrophic derailment, and the intervention of regulators.
Despite the risks, research shows that rail is still one of the safest ways to transport hazardous goods. It is also one of the least climate-damaging ways to transport freight. According to the AAR, railroads carry 40% of US freight, but account for just 2% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in the country.
The main alternative to transporting hazardous waste is via trucks on roads. And these are far more dangerous.
Trucks carrying hazardous materials cause many more incidents and deaths and inflict more damage than trains, according to federal data. And some observers say that increasing the cost of rail transport through increased regulation could push more hazardous cargo onto trucks, and into the environment.
The vast majority of US rail lines are used for freight transport.
Activists decry ‘bomb trains’
But environmentalists are questioning whether such dangerous chemicals should be transported at all, and say the petrochemical industry is responsible for much of the dangerous cargo.
Amanda Kiger, director of local activist group River Valley Organizing, told Between The Lines radio show, that the area of the accident had an unusually high number of these trains, as they supply the local petrochemical hub that was built for the shale gas boom.
“We have to transition to clean energy. There isn’t another choice at this point,” she said.
These calls were echoed by Chris Wilke, global advocacy manager with Waterkeeper Alliance, a global organization that supports local Waterkeeper groups around the world, including Hulton Vantassel’s.
Many of the dangerous chemicals being carried by the East Palestine train are used in plastic manufacturing, proof to Wilke that incidents like these will continue in line with demand for petrochemicals.
“Some company is going to take these chemicals, and they’re going to use them to make plastics or paint or other products. To what degree is society comfortable with that being an imperative?”
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