Chemical fallout from East Palestine train disaster spreads across 16 states, study reveals

The derailment, which involved a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials, has had far-reaching impacts, with pollutants spreading over 540,000 square miles, significantly larger in scale and scope than initially predicted.

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The East Palestine train derailment in Ohio last year has led to a widespread environmental crisis, as a new study reveals that toxic chemicals released during the incident spread across 16 states and potentially into Canada. The derailment, which involved a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials, has had far-reaching impacts, with pollutants spreading over 540,000 square miles, significantly larger in scale and scope than initially predicted.

On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. The derailment resulted in dozens of train cars leaving the tracks, at least 11 of which were carrying hazardous materials. The ensuing fires and the subsequent controlled burn of vinyl chloride—a carcinogenic chemical—released a significant amount of toxic substances into the atmosphere. The decision to conduct a controlled burn of the vinyl chloride, draining it into a trench and igniting it, has been heavily criticized, with some experts suggesting it violated U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules.

The immediate aftermath of the accident was severe. Residents of East Palestine and surrounding areas reported a potent chemical odor that lingered for weeks. Many experienced symptoms such as nausea, rashes, and headaches. Despite these localized reports, the broader environmental impact was not fully understood until the release of the new study by researchers from the National Atmospheric Deposition Program.

The study, published in Environmental Research Letters, reveals that the toxic chemicals spread far beyond the initial site of the disaster. Researchers collected inorganic compound samples from rain and snow at 260 locations. The highest levels of chloride were found in northern Pennsylvania and near the Canada-New York border—areas downwind from the derailment site. The study also found “exceptionally high” pH levels in rain as far away as northern Maine. These findings indicate a significant environmental impact, with measurements exceeding those recorded in the previous decade.

David Gay, the study’s lead author, expressed surprise at the extent of the chemical spread. “I didn’t expect to see an impact this far out,” Gay said. While the concentrations were low on an absolute scale, they were still “very extreme” compared to normal levels. Juliane Beier, an expert on vinyl chloride effects, emphasized the potential for long-term environmental impacts on affected communities, stating, “I think we should be concerned.”

The environmental disaster has prompted Norfolk Southern to agree to nearly $1 billion in settlements. In April, the company reached a $600 million deal with class action plaintiffs living within 20 miles of the derailment site. This deal is pending final approval from the residents. In May, a separate $310 million settlement was reached with the federal government. The company claims to have already spent $107 million on community support and soil removal efforts.

However, Norfolk Southern’s actions and expenditures have not quelled criticism. The company, which generates billions in annual profits, granted its CEO a 37% pay increase last year and spent $2.3 million on federal lobbying. These financial decisions have drawn significant public ire, especially given the scale of the environmental damage and the health impacts on local communities.

The long-term environmental and health impacts of the East Palestine disaster remain uncertain. The study did not examine organic compounds like dioxin or PFAS, which likely also spread following the accident. The elevated levels of inorganic chemicals, however, dropped two to three weeks after the incident, suggesting a transient but intense environmental impact.

The personal stories of affected residents add a human dimension to the disaster. Many continue to report health issues and a pervasive sense of uncertainty about the future. Community efforts to seek justice and hold Norfolk Southern accountable are ongoing, with residents advocating for stricter regulations to prevent similar incidents.

“We are dealing with the aftermath of a disaster that has affected thousands of lives,” said David Gay. “The findings of our study highlight the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address the environmental and health impacts of such incidents.”

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