Ohio train crash scene

Railway Disasters: The Challenge of Containing Hazardous Chemical Spills 

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Introduction

When it comes to environmental nightmares, industrial chemical spills rank high on the list. They are not just a local problem but a global concern. In this article, we are taking a deep dive into how we can better manage these crises. We are using the spills in East Palestine, Ohio, and near Philadelphia as real-life examples to shed light on the issue. The aim? To encourage industries and communities to work hand in hand to prevent or manage these disasters more effectively.

Background on the East Palestine, Ohio 2023 Railway Disaster

On February 3, 2023, East Palestine, Ohio, became the center of a significant environmental crisis. A Norfolk Southern Railway train, loaded with hazardous materials including vinyl chloride (a highly flammable key ingredient in PVC plastics), derailed (Wikipedia, 2024). This train, known as Train 32N, was on its way from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania (Wikipedia, 2023). Despite travelling below the speed limit, a mechanical mishap identified as an overheating wheel bearing led to a major derailment of 53 of its 141 cars, of which 20 of the cars contained hazardous materials (EPA, 2023).

The derailment led to East Palestine’s Mayor declaring a state of emergency whereby almost 70 emergency agencies from Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania responded to this environmental disaster (Wikipedia, 2023). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) quickly began monitoring air quality levels as concerns arose over potential explosions in the cars containing vinyl chloride (EPA, 2023). This led to a coordinated decision to burn off the chemical but ultimately also increased the amount of phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the atmosphere, which raised serious environmental contamination and public health concerns (Wikipedia, 2023).

The Broader Environmental and Community Impacts of the Spill

  • The combustion of vinyl chloride during the controlled burn released by-products into the environment (Isaacs-Thomas, 2023). There were conflicting views on the levels of environmental risk; some feared high risk to major water sources like Lake Erie and the Ohio River, while others believed the risk was minimal. Ultimately, the mandatory evacuation order was lifted when monitoring indicated that air and water levels were safe. However, experts warned that soil and groundwater contamination could persist over time, necessitating comprehensive risk assessments and environmental cleanup efforts (Press, 2023). In the wake of the derailment, there were heightened concerns about water and soil contamination. Studies were initiated to assess the long-term environmental impact, including the effects on local wildlife and plant life. The incident also raised questions about the adequacy of existing regulations and the need for more stringent safety protocols (Press, 2023).
  • The derailment’s impact on the East Palestine community was immediate and distressing. Residents experienced physical symptoms like headaches and nausea, and there were reports of aquatic life dying in nearby waterways (Goodman & Alvarado, 2023). The long-term psychological impact on residents, including fears of cancer and other health issues, has been profound.
  • The derailment also raised economic concerns, with fears of decreased property values and the overall economic health of the town (Salcedo, 2023).

Compare and Contrast: East Palestine, Ohio 2023 vs Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2023

In March 2023, a train derailment occurred in Whitemarsh Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. This incident involved a CSX Norfolk Southern freight train, where 16 of its 40 cars derailed (Lazo, 2023). As an imminent precaution, over a dozen homes were evacuated. Despite the potential risks, there were no injuries reported, and officials concluded that there was no leakage or spillage of hazardous materials. Silicone pellets were the only substance released in the railcar damage which posed no risk to the community (Frudd, 2023).

On the other hand, the East Palestine derailment involved a larger number of derailed cars (38 out of 141), and it resulted in the release of hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride (Wikipedia, 2023). The larger scale of the derailment was likely related to a significantly longer train set coupling (140+ vs 40 cars). A less costly approach no doubt, but one that is inherently more risky should something go wrong.

Sustainable Solutions: Preventing Future Train Derailments

To prevent future train derailments, several innovative solutions and policies are being proposed and/or implemented. These focus on utilizing advanced technology to monitor and maintain railway infrastructure, along with revising policies to enhance safety standards.

Technological Innovations:

  • Continuous Data Tracking and Analysis: The key to preventing rail accidents is the continuous tracking of data throughout the rail system. Technologies like “hot box” detectors are used to measure bearing temperatures and identify overheating, which was a significant cause of the Ohio derailment. These detectors can generate a substantial amount of data that needs to be efficiently analyzed to predict potential issues and prevent accidents (UP, 2023).
  • Automated Track Inspection (ATI) Technologies: These technologies, mounted on locomotives or rail cars, inspect the track under the same force as a loaded train, using lasers and cameras. They help in scheduling maintenance and identifying defects on the track (UP, 2023).
  • Positive Train Control (PTC): PTC systems monitor train location, speed, track signals, and other inputs to automatically stop a train before specific incidents, such as collisions or derailments due to excessive speed, occur (UP, 2023).

Policy and Investment Changes:

  • Targeted Resources for Rural and Small-Town Rail Communities: Dedicated funding is necessary for emergency planning, technical assistance, hazardous derailment response training, disaster response equipment, and staffing for emergency managers and first responders, especially in rural areas (Junod, 2023).
  • Advanced Warning Requirements: There is a need for systematic industry-wide requirements or practices for railroads to communicate about hazardous materials when travelling through communities (Junod, 2023).
  • Speed Monitoring and Control: Intelligent railway systems can improve safety by displaying train velocity for drivers and instantly reporting speeds back to central control systems. These systems also communicate with remote signalling systems to determine the need to alter a train’s speed based on track conditions and the presence of other trains (Bouix, 2017).
  • Redistribution Strategy: It is advisable to use shorter train sets to mitigate risks, especially for large shipments of toxic materials. This approach not only enhances safety but also addresses long-standing contentious issues related to train lengths, a topic of ongoing debate between railways and labour unions (Coleman & DeFrancesco, 2023).

Conclusion on Managing Train Chemical Spills

The train derailments in East Palestine, Ohio, and Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, have brought to light the urgent need for enhanced railroad safety and sustainability. These incidents, varying in impact, underscore the necessity of robust safety measures. Technological innovations such as continuous data tracking, and automated track inspection are key in predicting and preventing future derailments. Moreover, the emphasis on effective communication regarding hazardous cargo, along with support for emergency response teams, is crucial. As the U.S. moves forward in rail technology and transportation, integrating these technological advancements and safety practices will be vital in reducing risks and promoting a safer, more sustainable future in railroad transportation.

References

Bouix, L. (2017, December 11). How to prevent train derailments and collisions. Crouzet. https://blog.crouzet.com/how-to-prevent-train-derailments-and-collisions/

Coleman, L. W., & DeFrancesco, M. (2023, April 17). Train derailments highlight issues with train safety and toxic waste disposal. EHS Daily Advisor. https://ehsdailyadvisor.blr.com/2023/04/train-derailments-highlight-issues-with-train-safety-and-toxic-waste-disposal/

EPA. (2023, September 22). Ohio EPA’s response to train derailment in East Palestine. Train derailment in East Palestine. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/ba6f0f12f5c2429fb7215eca6e167d2a

Frudd, T. (2023, July 17). Evacuations near Philly after hazardous material train derailment. American Military News. https://americanmilitarynews.com/2023/07/evacuations-near-philly-after-hazardous-material-train-derailment/

Goodman, B., & Alvarado, C. (2023, February 18). East Palestine residents worry rashes, headaches and other symptoms may be tied to chemicals from train crash. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2023/02/17/health/ohio-derailment-rashes-health-impacts/index.html 

Isaacs-Thomas, B. (2023, February 16). What we know about the chemicals aboard the train that derailed in Ohio. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/what-we-know-about-the-chemicals-aboard-the-train-that-derailed-in-ohio#:~:text=Burning%20vinyl%20chloride%20can%20release,air%20quality%20in%20the%20community.

Junod, A. N. (2023, February 22). Why Hazardous Train Derailments Happen, who pays, and how to prevent them. Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/why-hazardous-train-derailments-happen-who-pays-and-how-prevent-them

Lazo, L. (2023, July 17). Pennsylvania train derailment – The Washington Post. Train carrying dry cleaning chemical derails in Pa., prompting evacuation. https://www.washingtonpost.com/transportation/2023/07/17/pennsylvania-train-derailment-evacuations/

Press, H. E. (2023, April 3). Toxic trainwreck: Unraveling the environmental impact of the Ohio derailment disaster. SciTechDaily. https://scitechdaily.com/toxic-trainwreck-unraveling-the-environmental-impact-of-the-ohio-derailment-disaster/

Salcedo, A. (2023, March 4). They put all their money in an East Palestine home. The derailment trapped them. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2023/03/04/ohio-train-derailment-residents-stuck-property-value/

UP. (2023, February 5). How railroads prevent derailments: Railroad safety technology. Union Pacific. https://www.up.com/customers/track-record/tr032823-train-derailment-safety-technology.htm#:~:text=One%20way%20to%20prevent%20train,and%20bearings%20passing%20over%20them.Wikipedia. (2024, January 5). Vinyl chloride. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vinyl_chloride

About Post Author

Tia Bigos

Tia Bigos is a 2nd year Environment and Business student studying at the University of Waterloo. This program blends the critical elements of environmental sustainability with the strategic principles of business management, preparing students for the challenges of integrating environmental considerations into business settings. She is on a co-op term working as a Research Assistant for EnvironFocus Inc.
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