Improving safety, incident response and public health following recent train derailments

Improving safety, incident response and public health following recent train derailments

On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying a variety of toxic chemicals — along with other cargo — derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, leaking toxic materials into local surface waters and igniting a damaging fire. To avoid the possibility of exploding several tank cars carrying vinyl chloride, authorities decided to conduct a “controlled ventilation and burn” operation that resulted in the release of billowing clouds of acrid black smoke. Locals soon began complaining of “headaches, coughs, rashes and other classic symptoms of chemical exposure.”

In a short time, the sleepy town of eastern Palestine found itself facing great uncertainty about potential long-term health risks. For example, according to the National Institutes of Health, vinyl chloride toxicity is linked to various forms of cancer, including brain, lung, and liver cancer, as well as nerve damage, immune reaction, and other risks. In addition to vinyl chloride, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that the spill released ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, and butyl acrylate, among other potentially harmful irritants, into the “air, surface soil, and surface waters.” “.

Individually, each of these substances can produce a range of negative health consequences. As chemicals break down over time, the risks multiply and become less understood. Article in the The New York Times He monitors the risks, noting that “chemical compounds can interact with each other in complex ways and persist after combustion.”


Deaths from Class I freight rail accidents last year

Since shipping accidents rarely make the national news, it’s tempting to assume they’re rare. Unfortunately, freight train derailments are a frequent occurrence. In fact, Norfolk South had a second derailment in Ohio on March 5, sending 28 cars off the tracks. In 2022, there were 923 Class 1 freight rail derailments (defined as any rail carrier with annual revenues greater than $943.9 million) — or 2.5 per day — and 1,533 highway-rail crossing collisions. Overall, Class I freight rail accidents killed 602 people last year. The Norfolk South region alone saw 156 and 119 derailments in 2021 and 2022, respectively.* This is an unacceptable level of industry performance.

Both Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation must act quickly through legislation and rulemaking to prevent future accidents, increase industry accountability, and improve accident response, including ensuring immediate health screening and health care services as well as through longer-term health monitoring and services for local residents who choose Share.

However, it is a mistake to focus the national policy response solely on the transportation sector without examining the broader use of harmful toxic chemicals throughout the American economy. A truly comprehensive response to this accident must include incentives for American industries to reformulate their products and processes in order to eliminate petrochemicals and other toxic materials as quickly as possible. As long as there is industrial demand for toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride, there will be a need for transportation and the risk of future accidents that harm public and environmental health.

Congress and the US Department of Transportation must address the urgent issue of transportation safety and public health, as well as the long-term issue of petrochemicals and other toxic substances in the economy.

Rail safety, industry accountability, and information exchange

On March 1, in response to the train derailment in Ohio, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) John Fetterman (D-OH) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced the bipartisan Rail Safety Act of 2023. This legislation includes several key policy reforms that, if enacted, would reduce the frequency and severity of future freight rail accidents as well as improve emergency response. The draft law would:

  • Determine requirements for the installation, repair, testing, maintenance and operation of roadside fault detectors (i.e. “hot box” detectors) to prevent bearing failure due to overheating. Anomaly detectors should be located at least every 10 miles.
  • Requiring rail freight carriers to provide advance notice and information regarding the transportation of hazardous materials to State and tribal governments along with a written gas discharge plan for the hazardous materials being transported.
  • Increase the maximum civil penalties imposed on rail carriers for violating rail safety regulations.
  • Determine the minimum time requirements that a qualified mechanical inspector must spend when inspecting a rail car or locomotive.
  • Enabling the Minister of Transport to regulate the length and weight of the train; train contents; Train speed follows standards; Track, bridge and railway maintenance; and signaling and train control, among other freight railway features.
  • Set the minimum train crew size.
  • Accelerating the retirement date for older tank cars carrying Class 3 flammable liquids.
  • Increase training grants for first responders.

Public Health

The derailment of eastern Palestine indicates a critical gap in responding to incidents that unleash toxic chemicals: identifying and addressing the acute and long-term health risks that remain after immediate containment and cleanup. The full health effects of exposure may take years to become fully known. Initial testing may be insufficient to capture the full extent of the risks to both local residents and first responders.

For example, just seven days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center complex, which caused the buildings to catch fire and collapse, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said she was “pleased to reassure the people of New Delhi.” . York and Washington, D.C., that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink. This declaration has proven to be disastrously wrong. It took years of fierce advocacy by first responders, their families and others to secure adequate funding for health care for the women and men who worked tirelessly cleaning up ground zero or were directly affected by the exposure. To avoid repeating this mistake following railroad accidents or other industrial accidents that release hazardous chemicals into the environment, the federal government should:

  • Adopt regulations requiring an at-fault rail carrier to cover the cost of immediate, stringent, independent health monitoring and examinations to be conducted by public health agencies for a period determined by the agencies. The intensity and duration of exposure, as well as the location at the time of the emergency, are important data points for understanding risks over time.
  • Develop an independent health program and registry with broad population data, similar to other programs such as the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides health surveillance, research, and ongoing treatment for long-term physical and mental health conditions associated with chemical exposure at no cost. For those affected.
  • Make participation in any monitoring program completely voluntary, and allow participants to opt out at any time without losing the right to file civil suits.
  • Ensure that waste removal operations protect the health of the community.
  • Require rail carriers to support independent monitoring of air, water and soil; Meaningfully engage community members to get their input on response plans; Hosting public meetings to communicate and translate results.

Eliminate toxic substances

The threats to life, health and critical habitats resulting from the derailment of trains carrying petrochemicals and other toxic materials are significant. According to one estimate, “more than 25 million people live within one mile of raw rail road.” Furthermore, trains carrying crude oil “typically pass within a quarter-mile of protected critical habitat for 57 threatened or endangered species.”

Toxic chemicals pose a danger and an unfair burden even when they are not in motion. Research shows that polluting industries are more likely to be located in low-income communities and communities of color, which also experience greater social pressures that may make them more vulnerable to negative health outcomes from exposure to chemicals.

These statistics only indicate the daily risks and damage caused by the production, transport and use of toxic chemicals. The most effective way to reduce the social and environmental damage caused by toxic substances is to reduce or eliminate them from as many products and business processes as possible, as quickly as possible.

In some cases, there are commercial technologies that are readily available that can replace harmful chemicals, including petrochemicals. For example, heat pumps can replace home heating oil systems. Increasingly, battery-powered electric vehicles are available to replace conventional internal combustion engines, including heavy-duty vehicles. The inflation reduction law provides strong incentives to accelerate the adoption of heat pumps and new and used electric vehicles, among other important provisions. But there are many other industrial products and processes that need non-toxic solutions.

The US Department of Energy must:

  • Continue to encourage and increase funding for research into biological alternatives to fossil fuel-based petrochemicals, such as the Joint Bioenergy Institute led by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The department should prepare a report on the potential use of these feedstocks as non-toxic alternatives at all stages of feedstock production, transportation, product formulation, and degradation.

Congress should:

  • Providing tax incentives to companies that replace toxic chemicals with non-toxic alternatives.
  • Requiring companies to use safer processes and chemicals to reduce the amount of dangerous goods shipped daily through communities.
  • Ensure that there are no restrictions on the liability of private companies for the release of toxic or hazardous substances, direct the Land Transportation Board to review how liability is allocated between rail carriers and companies shipping toxic chemicals, and direct the Minister of Transport to verify that rail carriers and companies shipping toxic chemicals Financial ability to pay compensation for any potential future toxic releases.


Taken together, these policy reforms will reduce the number and severity of derailments by establishing uniform standards for checking and tracking critical information for trains, including temperature readings of railcar bearings. Expanding chemical testing, long-term health monitoring and access to services will ensure that affected communities receive appropriate care for any negative health consequences resulting from toxic releases. Finally, an economy-wide push toward eliminating and reformulating products and processes that rely on toxic chemicals would reduce health and environmental risks, leading to truly sustainable economic production.

* These results are based on the author’s calculations from Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis data sets.

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