Nearly two weeks after a toxic train derailment carrying hazardous materials near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border that led to evacuations, authorities still say testing has not detected anything of concern.
Officials decided to do a controlled release of that gas, allowing it to burn to prevent an explosion. The burn caused toxic fumes to be released into the area, which alarmed residents about possible long-term effects after the explosion, including the occasionally strong odorous air they breathe and whether the water is safe to drink.
Environmental officials say continuing air monitoring done for the railroad and by government agencies — including testing inside nearly 400 homes — hasn’t detected dangerous levels in the area since residents were allowed to return. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has shared air monitoring results online.
Ohio officials caution the village of nearly 5,000 residents to drink bottled water and urge them to test private water wells while they evaluate the soil. No injuries have been reported.
Meanwhile, residents were expected to learn more about the derailment at a scheduled town hall Wednesday night. Here’s what we know so far:
TRAINS ARE BECOMING LESS SAFE:Why the Ohio derailment disaster could happen more often
WHAT IS VINYL CHLORIDE?:Toxic gases connected to Ohio train derailment cause concern
What may have caused the accident?
On Feb. 3, an eastbound Norfolk Southern Railway freight train, which contained hazardous materials, derailed on main track 1 in East Palestine, Ohio, about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and 21 miles south of Youngstown, Ohio.
Investigators examined the rail car that initiated the derailment and have surveillance video from a home showing “what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment,” the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday. Its preliminary report is expected in two weeks.
The train was carrying a variety of products from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, according to rail operator Norfolk Southern and the National Transportation Safety Board.
What are the ongoing concerns?
The rail cars contained vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, and isobutylene, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a letter to Norfolk Southern on Friday.
Vinyl chloride is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, and officials at the time warned burning it would release two concerning gases — hydrogen chloride and phosgene, the latter of which was used as a weapon in World War I.
Ohio Health Department Director Bruce Vanderhoff cautioned at a news conference Tuesday that residents who were worried about lingering odors or headaches since the derailment should know that those can be triggered by contaminant levels in the air that are well below what’s unsafe.
The derailment also highlighted questions about railroad safety, though federal data show accidents involving hazardous materials at this scale are very rare. Trains were rolling past East Palestine again soon after the evacuation order was lifted.
But some residents, who complained about a stench in the air, burning in their eyes, and sick animals, say they worry about the long-term effects of even low-grade exposure to contaminants from the site.
Ground and water contaminants? Any risk to pets or livestock?
Contaminants from derailed cars spilled into some waterways and were toxic to fish, but officials have said drinking water in the area has remained protected.
State leaders also contend the spill was largely contained, an estimated 3,500 small fish have died across a 7 1/2 mile stretch of streams due to low levels of contaminants following the derailment, state natural resources officials said Wednesday.
A plume of contaminants that includes butyl acrylate formed in the Ohio River in the first days after the derailment and on Tuesday was flowing slowly, nearing Huntington, West Virginia, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials said.
The contaminant amounts found so far don’t pose a risk for cities that rely on the river for its drinking water and the plume is continuing to be diluted as it moves farther along, the state EPA added. The risk to such animals is low, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture, which recommended that people contact a local veterinarian for any concerns about their livestock or pets’ health.
During a Tuesday news conference with state officials, Ohio. Gov. Mike DeWine was asked if he would feel comfortable living in East Palestine. DeWine said he would follow the suggestions to drink bottled water and find out what the tests say about the air quality.
“I would be alert and concerned,” DeWine said. “But I think I would be back at my house.”
Norfolk Southern faces several lawsuits
At least five lawsuits have been filed against Norfolk Southern as of Wednesday morning, each alleging the rail operator was negligent in its connection to the train derailment and release of toxic chemicals.
One lawsuit filed on Feb. 9 by two Pennsylvania residents is calling for Norfolk Southern to set up health monitoring for residents living within 30 miles of the derailment site.
According to the lawsuit, residents are demanding the rail operator pay for medical screenings and related care to determine who was affected by the chemicals released after the derailment. The lawsuit also is seeking undetermined damages.
DeWine also said Tuesday that he talked to the CEO of Norfolk Southern and received promises that the railroad will stay in East Palestine until the situation is remediated.
Contributing: Tami Abdollah, USA TODAY; Craig Webb, Akron Beacon-Journal; Chrissy Suttles, Beaver County Times; Benjamin Duer, Canton Repository; The Associated Press
Story Credit: usatoday.com