Continued Cleanup of the Toxic Waste in Ohio


A train headed straight through the sleepy Ohio town East Palestine derails spilling hazardous chemicals into streams and soil. Residents have been displaced, evacuated, put at risk, and exploited by those trying to use the tragedy as a stepping stone.

On February third, a train operated by an industrial transportation provider, Norfolk Southern, carrying vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals was seen sparking and catching fire near the tracks. This initial undiscovered mechanical problem would set off a domino effect that led the 39 car train off its tracks, and toxic chemicals seeping into the soil.

But without much progress being observed over the course of nearly a month, environmental conditions worsening, and lacking leadership from those in charge and those at fault, the situation at East Palestine is starting to look more like a political ploy than a cleanup effort.

An anonymous expert on the case with Norfolk Southern remarks that, “great friction between the journal, an axle, and the wheel, when that happens it is called a ‘hotbox’ and if it gets too hot it can cause the axle to break. Which is probably what happened here.” Essentially, built up heat inside the mechanisms cause the axle to break and sometimes send the train car off the tracks.

Outside of starting a fire near a residential area, the crash released amounts of the vinyl chloride it had been carrying into the environment. Some notable effects of exposure to vinyl chloride are developing cancer and when in high temperatures vinyl chloride can build up pressure and explode. All worrisome effects when considering that the chemical was trapped inside a highly flammable burning train car.

Soon after the initial impact 70 different emergency agencies in Ohio mobilized and the mayor of East Palestine quickly declared a state of emergency. It seemed as though the issue would be resolved as quickly as possible and residents of East Palestine would be inconvenienced little.

But as little major cleanup was done and reports of 100,000 gallons of hazardous materials already having seeped into the area, the permanent health effects of the spill were starting to scare residents. Comparisons of the spill to the movie “White Noise”, or in even more extreme cases likened it to the meltdown at Chernobyl.

During this time of uncertainty and stalled efforts Ohio Governor Mike DeWine called the case at East Palestine, “a matter of life and death”. Explaining the severity of the accident and imploring leaders nationwide to pay attention.

By February 5th a temperature change in one of the cars alerted safety officials to how intense an explosion in the area would be, and with this information a mandatory evacuation was finally placed on residents.

Anger and frustration rose in the community and in onlookers of the event citing that huge powerful train companies have not taken the right precautions and are now getting away without even a slap on the wrist.

Like a movie or a scary PSA, fish in nearby streams were described to be rising up to the surface dead at this point. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources came out with the news that this event has potentially killed 43,000 fish and the epidemic continues to head downstream. Specific bodies of water near East Palestine such as Sulfur Run and Leslie run were the most impacted. Cleanup crews had to employ the use of booms like those used in major oil spills.

As any person would be, residents and environmentalists were struck with fear when they saw animals dead in the water. A town hall meeting was called to order on February 15, and while many residents and representatives showed up-notably representation from the company responsible, Norfolk Southern, was nowhere to be seen. Their claimed reason for absence was “fear for their own safety”, assumed to mean that they were scared of what residents of East Palestine might do if faced with those responsible for turning their home upside down.

The company’s cowardice in the face of responsibility was majorly offensive to the people of East Palestine. It appears that Norfolk Southern’s view that the residents were so unintelligent that they would not know how to act maturely at the meeting was grounded in stereotypical ideas of “redneck” and “hick” behavior in the Midwest and Appalachia.

Other groups and figures took note of the situation in East Palestine and opted to exploit it for political gain. For example, former president Donald Trump (who rolled back train regulations, increasing the likelihood of the derailment) made an event of hosting a rally in the town, and parading down the streets offering bottled “Trump Water” to residents. Whereas Norfolk Southern patronized East Palestine through neglect, many other leaders like Trump belittled residents by treating them like charity cases. President Biden was also critiqued for continuously emphasizing aiding Ukraine over sending help to Ohio.

Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of Transportation, said that he believed a myriad of problems were the cause for the derailment. However, many of his listed problems were not true for example, “The maximum authorized speed of the train was fifty miles per hour, it was going forty-seven. The regulations say there has to be two operators on board, there were three on board”, says an anonymous train expert.

As the mandatory evacuation slowed and was lifted on February 8th, coverage of this story began to dwindle as it no longer benefitted those using it. Residents of East Palestine were forced to go back to a home that had: 1. Been ecologically impacted by a disaster and 2. Run down from all the media attention.

East Palestine will have to trudge forward into years more of cleanup and will have to be aware of their health in relation to the spill for decades to come, according to Vox. Its 4,700 residents report that the stingy smell of chemicals still lingers in the air everywhere.

Even though that information from residents is shocking and interesting, it’s scarcely in the media. There is something to be said about the fact that when searched, “Ohio Train Derailment”, provides information about Trump visits, Biden, and Pete Buttigieg, instead of the people of East Palestine and Norfolk Southern. Much like most tragedies in this age, the media has somehow turned a social and environmental disaster into something political and polarizing instead of something unifying.