Feb 17, 2023

The crisis in East Palestine, Ohio.

The crisis in East Palestine, Ohio.
Drone footage of the controlled burn in East Palestine. Image: Photography Matters LLC Facebook page

Residents on the ground say what they are experiencing does not match the "official" narrative.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

Today is a special Friday edition report on East Palestine, Ohio.

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On February 3, a train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, a town of roughly 4,700 people just 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

About 38 cars were derailed, including 11 that were carrying hazardous materials. When first responders got to the scene, they noticed one of the cars was releasing vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical used to make the polyvinyl chloride that is in a number of plastic products like pipes and packaging material.

When several of the cars caught fire, sending giant plumes of black smoke into the air, roughly 1,500 to 2,000 residents of the town and outlying communities in both Ohio and Pennsylvania were told to evacuate. Many did, but since the evacuation was not yet mandatory or under the possibility of penalty, others didn't.

Drone footage of the controlled burn in East Palestine. Image: Photography Matters LLC Facebook page

Two days later, the remaining residents in the town were told — much more urgently, this time — that they had to leave. Officials believed a rail car might explode, and worried that shrapnel could travel as far as a mile from the blast.

In order to prevent the explosion, they decided to release chemicals from the derailed cars for a controlled burn on February 6. They drained five cars, leaking the material into a trench before lighting it on fire. In public remarks, the crews responsible for the burn said it went "perfectly," though the fire and the blast were large enough to be seen and felt from the next county over. On February 8, residents were told they could come back to East Palestine.

I'd say "that's when things started to get strange," but the truth is this story was odd from the beginning.

For starters, East Palestine was home to the recent filming of the movie "White Noise," which is based on the 1985 Don DeLillo novel in which a train derails and spills chemicals, causing an “airborne toxic event” that forces a nearby town to evacuate. At least one of the evacuees, Ben Ratner, told CNN that he was an extra in the film before living out its plot in real life.

As residents came back to East Palestine, reports of unsettling issues started to spread on social media. Some residents reported headaches, nausea, and rashes. Others said their pets were getting ill, and videos of creeks full of dead fish started going viral. A reporter from NewsNation, one of the outlets who has been providing on-the-ground coverage since the crash, was arrested during a news conference about the derailment for being too loud while the governor spoke. Cries of a cover-up began, and while the charges against the reporter were ultimately dropped, distrust in the local, state and federal authorities was already spreading.

Part of that distrust stemmed from the mystery surrounding the initial crash. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said the state did not know that these hazardous materials were passing through, and that if it had, he would have been able to more quickly inform residents what was inside the cars that derailed. Instead, it took the EPA more than a week to publicly release a full list of chemicals, at which point many residents had already returned home after the controlled burn.

The list, which was given to the EPA by Norfolk Southern, included ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and butyl acrylate, on top of the vinyl chloride (which residents heard about almost immediately). Norfolk Southern said the cars carrying the butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate were breached and either all or some of the chemicals were released during the crash. From The Washington Post:

Exposure to the chemicals can cause various symptoms, such as ear, eye and throat irritation or dizziness, nausea and headache. Vinyl chloride is a carcinogen; phosgene is a highly toxic gas; butyl acrylate produces poisonous gases when burned; ethyl hexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether are irritants.

In the immediate aftermath of the first fire and the controlled burn, there were some obvious and indisputable environmental issues. The initial spill killed an estimated 3,500 fish, as of Feb. 8. On top of that, the Environmental Protection Agency said “materials released during the incident were observed and detected in samples from Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek, and the Ohio River.” Those waterways serve millions of people downstream. Some towns as far away as West Virginia immediately responded by increasing testing of their water. The Ohio EPA and other state and local organizations have continued to test the water, saying it is safe.

“Since the fire went out on February 8, EPA air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment,” EPA regional administrator Debra Shore said on February 14.

“The spill did flow to the Ohio River, but the Ohio River is very large and it’s a water body that’s able to dilute the pollutants pretty quickly,” Ohio EPA chief Tiffani Kavalec said on the same day. “We would not envision anything from this point forward impacting any of the future drinking supplies.”

Still, Gov. DeWine has asked residents in the surrounding area to use bottled water out of an “abundance of caution,” a recommendation that has added to confusion and suspicion about official statements on water safety.

Train derailments are not particularly uncommon. There are, on average, about 1,704 train derailments a year —  or close to five a day. But the circumstances of this derailment, and the fire and contamination that happened in the immediate aftermath, are not typical.

As news about the derailment spread, scrutiny of Norfolk Southern — the railway company which operated the derailed train — has spread, too. Norfolk Southern has pledged to cover all the costs related to the evacuation and the cleanup of the derailment, and says it has already spent more than $1 million making payments directly to families and businesses. But for many, that's not enough.

Surveillance footage has surfaced showing the train was already on fire as it passed through Salem, Ohio, about 20 miles from East Palestine. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is investigating the crash, said that it now knows that the train's crew was alerted of a mechanical issue before an emergency brake went on, but the cause of the derailment is still unknown. There are obvious questions still unanswered about how or why a crew didn't notice something like a fire and couldn't slow or stop the train in time.

There are also precautions in place meant to prevent these kinds of accidents. One is called a hotbox detector, a device situated on the rails that uses infrared sensors to measure the temperature of wheelsets. If a hotbox sensor goes off, a conductor knows to slow or stop the train to inspect the wheels, and these sensors exist — on average — every 25 miles on Class I freight railroads. Hotbox detectors have reduced train accidents caused by "axle and bearing-related factors" by 81 percent since 1990, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. In this case, it's possible a wheelset burned up in between these detectors, in what would amount to an unusual and freakish accident.

Inaccurate information and misleading articles have been spreading like wildfire on social media. The writers behind Doomberg noted the way some contaminants were having their toxicity exaggerated in the media. As for the derailment, in response to incidents in technical fields, I think it’s important to consult experts. William C. Vantuono, the Editor-in-Chief of the trade publication Railway Age, seems to fit the bill, and he wrote about his theory on the accident:

"Railway Age learned that the derailment probably occurred due to a combination of factors and unfortunate timing. The train passed a wayside hotbox detector that reported zero defects," he wrote. "Shortly after that, a wheel bearing started to overheat, which in turn caused an axle to severely overheat as the bearing got hotter. This eventually resulted in an axle failure that, unfortunately, occurred within a few moments after the train had passed by a second hotbox detector that flagged the problem, alerting the crew. The engineer immediately applied the brakes, but the axle had already failed, and the train derailed."

The crash, of course, comes on the heels of a massive labor uprising from railway union workers who wanted more vacation time and schedule flexibility. In The New Republic, Prem Thakker argued that this was the predictable outcome of those negotiations, which concluded with the Biden administration forcing union workers to take a deal.

"Most of Congress and the entire Biden administration is at fault here. Only a select, largely progressive group of lawmakers stuck by rail workers last year as they vied for reasonable work conditions and warned of disasters like this one occurring; the rest of Congress, including the president, imposed an inadequate contract on rail workers nationwide," Thakker wrote. "Meanwhile, rail companies have enjoyed continuing to chase profit with no abandon. They’ve been free to practice precision scheduled railroading, or PSR, which has led to smaller crews and bigger trains, and therefore greater strain on workers and greater risk for disaster. The Trump administration overturned an Obama-era rule that would’ve brought industry-wide improvement to the braking system—something that failed in East Palestine’s derailment. The Biden administration and Pete Buttigieg’s Department of Transportation have failed to revive it."

Others, like Dominic Pino in National Review, have suggested people slow down and consider the larger picture. For all the breathless comparisons to "Chernobyl," nobody has died, Pino noted, and there were no injuries. Railroad service was restored on February 7, and local officials seem to be taking every precaution they can, he argued:

"Investigators are examining the hotbox detectors to see whether they were faulty. No system will ever be 100 percent fail-proof, and the evidence we have so far suggests a freak accident," he said. "[Senators J.D.] Vance and [Marco] Rubio’s letter notes the length of the train, 150 cars, and says that the train had three crew members onboard. 'It is not unreasonable to ask whether a crew of two rail workers, plus one trainee, is able to effectively monitor 150 cars,' they write. But having three crew members onboard means the train had one more crew member than normal. Two-man crews are the industry standard (and technological advances have made the second crewman less important than in the past). All three crewmen on this train would have been sitting in the cab of the locomotive, looking at the same instruments and gauges; it’s not as though they are monitoring individual cars throughout the train."

Pino, responding to pundits like Tucker Carlson who said East Palestine was being ignored because it’s a mostly white, pro-Trump town, also pointed out that a similar crash involving some of the same chemicals happened in a Democratic stronghold in New Jersey in 2012. The response was almost identical, and the clean-up there has been a success.

In response to a list of detailed questions about the accident, a Norfolk Southern spokesperson said they were "unable to comment on anything that may be material to the NTSB’s investigation," but stated — in response to comments from Gov. DeWine — that "this train was not considered a high-hazard flammable train." But Norfolk Southern had classified 20 of the more than 100 cars on the train as carrying hazardous materials.

The spokesperson also shared a summary of a status update from the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, as of 3pm EST, on February 15.

"Municipal Water Testing Results: New water testing results have been returned to the Ohio EPA. These results show no detection of contaminants in raw water from the five wells that feed into East Palestine’s municipal water system. Test results from the combined, treated water from all five wells also showed no detection of contaminants associated with the derailment. With these test results, Ohio EPA is confident that the municipal water is safe to drink," the update read. Additionally, the U.S. EPA said, "As of last night, we have screened 459 homes and no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride have been identified."

For folks on the ground, though, that response is far from satisfying.

I spoke by phone to Matthew Ceccarelli, who has lived in East Palestine for six years and operated a Jiu-Jitsu academy in the area that he closed after the accident. Ceccarelli was at home with his daughter on Friday night, the 3rd, when he woke up to police lights on a nearby road and an announcement that he needed to evacuate. Since then, it's been nothing but confusion.

Ceccarelli took his daughter a few miles out of town during the evacuation order and has been staying with his mom since. He dropped by his house twice after evacuating, but both times said he felt sick and left. Then, on Thursday, February 9th, a day after he was told it was safe and the evacuation order was lifted, he returned to his house to gather some more of his things and evaluate the situation in town.

"I was in my house for 20 minutes the day after they lifted the evac," he told me. "I felt really sick, my nose was really runny, I couldn't breathe, got a headache, all the same watery itchy eyes, all the same basic symptoms. I was in my own house for 20 minutes, and it was Thursday (the 9th) at that point."

For Ceccarelli, the public press releases from the EPA, Norfolk Southern and politicians in the area only create more frustration. For instance, the Ohio EPA has insisted that the water in town is safe to drink, but when Ceccarelli went to a town hall meeting at a local high school on Wednesday, the normal water fountain was locked up. He sent me this photo:

Which provokes the obvious question: Why is a public school not allowing residents to drink water if it's safe?

UPDATE: School officials have noted that this water fountain and others have been locked up since the Covid-19 pandemic in an effort to limit the spread of the virus.

That frustration only mounted during the actual meeting, when residents found out Norfolk Southern wasn't sending any representatives. A spokesperson for the railroad company sent me this statement:

"We had hoped to join local, state, and federal officials at a town hall to update the East Palestine community on the steps we are taking to thoroughly, responsibly, and safely clean up the accident site and to provide the latest results from ongoing water and air testing," the spokesperson said. "At the same time, we know that many are rightfully angry and frustrated right now. Unfortunately, after consulting with community leaders, we have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties."

Ceccarelli said the response is dismissive of what he and his friends have gone through. From his perspective, they've been begging for a public meeting with railroad officials for almost two weeks, and have found it incredibly difficult to contact anyone with reliable information. Then, the one time that meeting is supposed to happen, the railroad representatives "bail."

During the meeting, which Ceccarelli live streamed, one resident claimed to the room that EPA officials had come to her home to test the air. She pushed them, repeatedly, to take soil and water samples as well. According to her account, when they finally did, they told her they would pay to relocate her, because she can’t go back into her home. I was unable to track the woman down, but the story left an impression on a lot of the meeting’s attendees, who broke into a raucous applause when she asked how many other people were sleeping in contaminated homes that night.

When I asked Ceccarelli about the EPA's test results showing the air was clean, and the Ohio EPA's statement that the water was clear of contaminants, he responded with a litany of questions that the EPA's statement raises. I'm sharing them below, in full, because I think they illustrate how frustrating and frightening this ordeal has been for residents:

"They’re telling you what sounds good, but it’s a lie by omission," he said. "How come they said you can go home, but don't run your vacuum cause you don't want to kick that dust up, and open your windows to air the house out? You don't want that in the air when you come to do the air test? Wait a minute, did you just tell us to destroy the evidence before you come to test for it? They can say they didn't find that chemical vinyl chloride in the water, great! That wasn't the only chemical they spilled.

Then they took the chemicals, mixed them together, and lit them on fire. I'm no chemist, but when you mix chemicals together and light them on fire, you get different chemicals. So we didn't find vinyl chloride, but what about all these other chemicals I can't pronounce and can't spell? How come when I went back to my house on Thursday, and I live in the middle of the woods, there is not a single animal? There's no squirrels, there's no rabbits, there's no birds, there's nothing.

How come all the fire departments that came, all their equipment is now contaminated and condemned, but the men wearing those boots, driving those trucks, the dirt the trucks were standing on, none of that is contaminated? But all the equipment is. See how they say things that sound good, but then, wait a minute, what about all this other stuff?”

A few days after the crash, David Sirota, the journalist behind Lever News, published a piece alleging that Norfolk Southern had actually helped block safety rules that may have lessened the damage of the accident. While a Norfolk Southern representative told Tangle that the train "was not considered a high-hazard flammable train," Lever News reported that documents show Norfolk Southern helped lobby against rules that may have impacted that classification. From Sirota:

Though the company’s 150-car train in Ohio reportedly burst into 100-foot flames upon derailing — and was transporting materials that triggered a fireball when they were released and incinerated — it was not being regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train,” federal officials told The Lever... Documents show that when current transportation safety rules were first created, a federal agency sided with industry lobbyists and limited regulations governing the transport of hazardous compounds...

Amid the lobbying blitz against stronger transportation safety regulations, Norfolk Southern paid executives millions and spent billions on stock buybacks — all while the company shed thousands of employees despite warnings that understaffing is intensifying safety risks. Norfolk Southern officials also fought off a shareholder initiative that could have required company executives to “assess, review, and mitigate risks of hazardous material transportation."

The relationship between the rail lobbyists, safety regulations and the accident is not something that has been lost on residents, who asked pointed questions during the town hall meeting on Wednesday.

"Railroads have been greasing this system to avoid the safety regulations that would cost them money, meanwhile, accidents happen 'cause nobody is spending money on the safety," Ceccarelli said. "It was a perfect storm of everything going wrong... And then it all came to a head in my fucking backyard."

To what extent this accident was the product of railway negligence and big money lobbying or a freakish stroke of bad luck is not something we know quite yet. The investigation into the accident, the results of which are expected by the end of the month, should add some clarity. One thing is certain, though: The EPA, Norfolk Southern and the residents of East Palestine have a long road ahead.

In the wake of chemical spills, the threats to human health can linger for years after an accident. Ceccarelli said that many of his friends with families who have already been staying in hotels, Airbnbs or with relatives won't be able to stay out of town for much longer — the day-to-day expenses are just too much. When they return home, they will face the same uncertainty as many residents already on the ground are experiencing.

Juliane Beier, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh whose work focuses on vinyl chloride exposure, told the Allegheny Front that the biggest issue is probably contaminated groundwater.

“It was as a liquid form in the tank, of course,” Beier said. “It can travel through the ground into the water and contaminate the water and travel within the groundwater.”

Some Ohio towns downstream of East Palestine are starting to see chemicals like butyl acrylate show up in their water samples, and as time passes and the chemicals from the spill move from the soil to groundwater, it's possible the problem could worsen. On Thursday, Ohio Senator J.D. Vance (R) posted a video of himself scraping the bed of a creek with a stick, which appears to kick up an oily substance. “You can just see that chemical pop out of the creek,” he says.

In the meantime, two Pennsylvania residents have filed a lawsuit that calls for Norfolk Southern to pay for medical screenings for anyone living within a 30 mile radius of the derailment.

"The heavier the chemical, often the slower it degrades and the more likely it is to stick to soil. These compounds can remain for years if left unaddressed," Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer who investigates chemical risks during disasters, told The Conversation. "If the heavily contaminated soils and liquids are excavated and removed, the long-term impacts can be reduced. But the longer removal takes, the farther the contamination can spread. It’s in everyone’s best interest to clean this up as soon as possible and before the region gets rain."

Ceccarelli, as well as two other East Palestine residents I exchanged emails with who didn’t want to talk on the record, also criticized the media coverage of the event. To them, there hasn’t just been a disconnect between the public comments from officials and what residents are experiencing, but between the experiences on the ground and the way the story is being framed now. Many East Palestine residents and social media users have insisted that news outlets are not giving adequate attention to the story’s most important elements, like the way air tests are being done, the power of the railway lobbyists, and the people on the ground who are feeling unwell despite the evacuation order being lifted.

Still, while East Palestine hasn’t dominated cable news or the homepages of the most trafficked newspapers as much as last week’s Chinese balloon story, it has gotten coverage from just about every major news outlet I looked at.

To Ceccarelli, it feels like there’s an effort to tie up a nice clean narrative, one that disregards the struggles — for some residents — that are only just beginning.

“This is not a quick and easy clean-up,” Ceccarelli said. “I have a lot of friends who are terrified, they have kids. Kids who are under a year old that are getting a rash or feeling sick… It’s a terrible situation, people are really really stuck, and people don’t know what to do."

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