On February 3rd, around 50 train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, as a Norfolk Southern train was carrying about 150 freights from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania. No one was reported injured, but the residents of East Palestine were immediately ordered to evacuate the area after it was found that the carcinogenic chemical, vinyl chloride, was among the cargo in the wreckage.
After the evacuation, officials decided to deal with the problem using a controlled burn to avoid any potential explosions. This consisted of slowly releasing the vinyl chloride from the train cars into pits that were then set on fire. Afterwards, officials reported that the detonation went, “perfect.” Due to this success, the evacuation order was lifted just days later, on February 8th, after air and water samples from the area were deemed safe.
However, even after assurances from officials, many residents were skeptical of their safety. Many reported symptoms such as nausea, headaches, and dizziness after returning to their homes. There were also more specific cases, including a lady who said that six of her chickens had died the day after the derailment, and another resident who reported having seen multiple dead fish floating in a nearby creek. These reports only amplified the concern of the residents and has led to a number of lawsuits being filed against Norfolk Southern to get the company to cover medical screenings for residents in the surrounding area. These issues remain unresolved, even as officials have promised to continue their independent tests of the water and air supplies.
Many have also begun to ask what caused the derailment. On February 23rd, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) released a report detailing the cause of the derailment. The report explained that an overheating of a wheel bearing and the inability for the sensors to catch it had led to the derailment. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy went on to say later in an interview that “the crew did nothing wrong,” and that the NTSB had “a lot of questions” regarding the safety of the trains.
As increased media attention has turned towards the crisis, it has also begun to turn increasingly political, especially due to the lackluster government response. Initially, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), which usually provides aid after hurricanes or tornadoes, refused to give the city any aid as the situation was deemed too different to be considered under their scope. However, after two weeks of mounting pressure, they eventually relented, giving relief to the city. Furthermore, questions have begun to be raised about how the crisis was allowed to occur in the first place. This has shifted a lot of attention to Pete Buttigieg, the Secretary of Transportation, who has faced increasing attacks due to his unwillingness to visit East Palestine. In response, Buttigieg has publicly stated that he remains committed to helping and aiding the city.
The accident also comes at the same time when Joe Biden decided to take a surprise trip to Ukraine, as he announced another $500 million in military aid. This has drawn a number of critics, as the mayor of East Palestine, Trent Conoway, said, “That was the biggest slap in the face … That tells you right now he doesn’t care about us.” To further highlight his absence, Former President Donald Trump decided to visit the town on February 22nd, saying that he hopes Biden has “got some money left over” for East Palestine when he returns from Ukraine. However, many defenders of Biden have pointed to Trump’s own rollback of rail regulations during his presidency, many of which likely contributed to the disaster.
It remains to be seen how the political fallout from this will affect public perception of either party. Additionally, there remain a number of unanswered questions regarding the details behind the disaster and who will take accountability for it.