Railroad cars that derailed in Ohio were marked as non-hazardous

This story was originally published by Grist. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

Nearly two weeks after a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in rural Ohio, questions still remain about the lingering impact of the incident and the speed with which residents were returned to their homes.

At around 9 p.m. on February 3, a Norfolk Southern Railway train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on the Pennsylvania border and about an hour from Pittsburgh.

[ Related: Toxic train derailment in East Palestine, OH highlights issues facing America’s railways ]

Among the chemicals the cargo was carrying, five cars contained vinyl chloride, a colorless gas linked to various types of cancer and used in a variety of plastic products and manufacturing. For the first few days after the derailment, temperatures in the cars containing the vinyl chloride rose, and officials from both the railroad and the US Environmental Protection Agency ordered residents to evacuate East Palestine.

At a news conference Tuesday, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said he learned the cars were marked as non-hazardous and therefore officials were not notified that the train was transiting the state.

The governor asked Congress to consider regulations that would allow a multi-car train carrying hazardous materials to be marked as non-hazardous.

“Honestly, if that’s true, that’s absurd and we need to look at it,” DeWine said. “We should know when we have hazardous materials trains running through the state of Ohio.”

DeWine also said he was presented with “two bad options” before deciding to declassify the chemicals.

One was doing nothing and risking a car filled with vinyl chloride exploding, which would have been “catastrophic” resulting in shrapnel being hurled within a one-mile radius. The second option won, and officers conducted a controlled burn of the chemicals.

[Related: BP made $28 billion last year, and now it’s backtracking on its climate goals.]

Skepticism about the decision to return residents to their homes has grown since the first fire. A local environmental group is urging DeWine to declare an emergency for additional federal assistance.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker said the decision to go ahead with a controlled burn was made as a group, reflecting DeWine’s recent update.

“Norfolk Southern hazmat personnel were on the scene and coordinated with local first responders immediately after the derailment,” Spielmaker told Grist.

According to the EPA, contaminated soil on the site was covered up in order to rebuild the railroad line.

The release of hazardous chemicals pouring through rural Ohio late at night has sparked a number of concerns. Residents have reported headaches, dizziness and fever since returning home on February 8 while continuing to conduct voluntary air and water tests at home.

“We basically bombed a town with chemicals so we could open a railroad,” Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist, told WKBN.

The derailment did not result in any immediate human deaths, but local residents are now reporting the deaths of pets, chickens and foxes. Given the spill’s proximity to the Ohio River Basin, which touches 14 states in the region, area pollution concerns have arisen in central Tennessee, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Ohio and West Virginia.

In addition to the vinyl chloride, various other chemicals were spilled, raising concerns about water, soil and groundwater pollution.

According to the table of contents of the railcars provided to the EPA by Norfolk Southern, undisclosed amounts of butyl acrylate, a hazardous chemical known to cause skin irritation and used in plastics production, and propylene glycol, a generally non-toxic chemical, were used in food packaging who were buried in the derailment. In addition, undisclosed amounts of ethylhexyl acrylate, a carcinogen linked to waterborne death, and petroleum were spilled at the site.

On Tuesday, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that butyl acrylate was found in nearby waterways and that the spill made its way into the Ohio River.

Tiffani Kavalec, department chief for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said the state agency is monitoring a moving plume of pollutants in the Ohio River. But, she said, there’s no concern that the chemicals will end up in drinking water systems connected to the Ohio River because of the river’s size and its ability to self-filter.

Closer to the derailment site, however, Ohio EPA and state Department of Health officials urged those who have private drinking water to drink bottled water as authorities continue to monitor groundwater.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources confirmed 3,500 dead fish in waterways, as well as deceased Hellbender salamanders, an endangered species in the state.

In a statement to Grist, Debra Shore, Ohio’s regional administrator for the federal EPA, said the agency issued a letter to the railroad company detailing Norfolk Southern’s potential liability due to the release of hazardous chemicals.

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