A Major Environmental Disaster Unfolding In Ohio After A Train Derailed Carrying Toxic Chemicals Contaminating The Air & Water

A critical situation in East Palestine, Ohio, has prompted environmental organizations to call on Governor Mike DeWine to declare a state of emergency after a train carrying hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals derailed and exploded, contaminating nearby waterways, soil, and the air residents are breathing. Norfolk Southern Railroad burned several cars of chemicals to avoid further explosions.

The impact of the February 3rd toxic chemical explosion on people’s health is unknown, but residents have reported experiencing nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, and headaches. It has also been confirmed that the hazardous chemicals have spilled into the Ohio River, which covers 14 states and provides drinking water to more than 5 million people.

The state confirmed that the contaminated waterways have led to the deaths of at least 3,500 fish. It is critical that Governor DeWine declare a state of emergency and formally ask President Joe Biden for FEMA aid so that residents affected by the explosion can get immediate help.

“When important source waters like this are contaminated by spills caused by corporate greed and lack of protective regulations, the impacts reverberate downstream and harm communities for years — we have seen it time and time again,” said Earthjustice Legislative Counsel Julian Gonzalez. “Governor DeWine, EPA, and FEMA need to listen to the people impacted most by this, like Fresh Water Future, Project BREATHE, Save Our County, and River Valley Organizing, and immediately explore emergency options to mitigate the damage caused by this preventable disaster.”

Following the explosions, state officials ordered residents living within a mile of the explosions to evacuate immediately, said River Valley Organizing Development Director Emily Wright, who lives a few miles from the disaster site. Many East Palestine community members sheltered in a local high school as they had nowhere else to go. Residents in other areas in Ohio surrounding the site and in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, were also told to evacuate.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the water, air, and soil surrounding the disaster site have been contaminated by hazardous and carcinogenic petrochemical derivatives used in factories to make paint, adhesives, plastics, and more. Despite the EPA’s greenlight for residents to return home a week after the explosions, the agency cannot say what kind of health impact this amount of exposure to these hazardous chemicals will have on people.

Petrochemicals are toxic chemicals derived from oil and gas that are used to make a variety of substances. As the U.S. shifts to clean energy, fossil fuel companies are turning to petrochemicals to protect their profits. The EPA must adopt stronger protections from these chemicals across their life cycles, including how they are transported. This will help to protect against chemical disasters, as well as the everyday exposures that are poisoning communities.

In 2018, the federal agencies charged with regulating hazardous materials on trains actually removed safety rules requiring modern braking systems. The agencies failed to conduct mandated safety tests, used inaccurately low estimates of accidents and risks, and restricted public participation. Earthjustice appealed the rule, but the agencies failed to respond, siding with companies like Norfolk Southern, who lobbied against more stringent safety requirements. The lack of government response has meant more explosive tank cars with “Civil War-era braking systems” traveling through towns and neighborhoods.

“The Norfolk Southern disaster unfolding in East Palestine demonstrates the lengths to which the petrochemical industry and its underregulated toxic emissions needlessly put communities in harm’s way,” said Adam Kron, senior attorney at Earthjustice. “While we still don’t know the full extent of human exposure and health effects from this derailment, it is an urgent call to action for the EPA and other federal agencies to undo Trump-era rollbacks and strengthen rules that protect communities from petrochemical facilities’ toxic emissions.”

To report incidents stemming from this disaster, please submit a form from Earthjustice’s partners at River Valley Organizing, HERE!

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