The toxic train derailment in Ohio was only a matter of time, Northeastern experts say. But what happens now?

A cloud of black smoke fills the sky over homes and businesses over an Ohio town.
The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio forced residents to evacuate and left a plume of toxic black smoke over the town. Northeastern experts say this incident is the result of systemic problems in train infrastructure and chemical and corporate regulation. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

In recent weeks East Palestine, Ohio, a town of less than 5,000 people, has become the center of an environmental disaster and the ensuing political firestorm in the aftermath of a train derailment earlier this month.

On Feb. 3, 50 cars of a Norfolk Southern train, some of which were carrying hazardous chemicals and materials, derailed in East Palestine due to what investigators have said was a broken axle. The ensuing chemical spill, which included highly combustible vinyl chloride from the capsized train cars, threatened an explosion and led to the evacuation of around 1,500 residents. A controlled burn of the chemicals resulted in a massive toxic plume of smoke rising into the air over the east Ohio town.

The hazards of vinyl chloride, specifically, are well cataloged, says Phil Brown, university distinguished professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern. Exposure to vinyl chloride through drinking water is frequently associated with liver cancer, and, when burned, it produces highly toxic phosgene gas.

“Vinyl chloride was very, very widely produced in petrochemical complexes especially between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which we commonly call Cancer Alley because it’s so high in cancer rates,” Brown says.

Residents have returned to East Palestine, but many now question the safety of their own community. The Environmental Protection Agency has been conducting tests of the town’s water and air and assured residents that the situation is safe. However, residents have reported rashes and other physical symptoms in the aftermath of the incident. As the toxic plume over the town has subsided and cleanup efforts have begun, the focus has shifted to the potential long-term impacts of chemical contaminants in waterways and soil.

Kimberly Garrett, a postdoctoral research associate in Northeastern University’s sociology and anthropology program, says that although the controlled burn would have prevented vinyl chloride from contaminating water in the area, the combustion products could have seeped into waterways resulting in wildlife deaths. As for soil contamination, Garrett notes enzymes in soil break down many of the chemicals listed on the train’s manifest, but she says any cleanup effort will have to start with sampling.

“Going forward, extensive sampling is always great,” Garrett says. “The EPA has made some of their air and water testing public on their website, along with a little map showing where they’re sampling. Continuing things like that is really important and also communicating those results to people who are impacted by them.”

Garrett and Brown also say a large part of East Palestine’s ability to recover will come down to how much corporate accountability Norfolk Southern takes––or is forced to take. Garrett says there is precedent for corporations involved in environmental pollution paying for water filtration equipment for local water authorities or medical testing. Residents have already filed a federal lawsuit to require the company to provide medical monitoring for residents in Ohio and Pennsylvania affected by the aftermath of the toxic train derailment.

But for many, including Garrett, the incident has also raised larger questions around governmental regulation of shipping hazardous chemicals and corporate pollution, as well as the needs of U.S. train infrastructure.

Watching the news unfold, Garrett, who grew up about 30 minutes away from East Palestine across the Pennsylvania border, was horrified but not surprised. She spent much of her adult life in the Pittsburgh area and now researches the interactions between environments, communities and governments in PFAS chemical contamination. 

“It really fits in with part of a pattern of states making decisions that lead to environmental destruction and terrible outcomes for their residents due to environmental contamination,” Garrett says.

Built on the foundations of Industrial Revolution-era steel production, the region has historically suffered from crumbling infrastructure and environmental, corporate pollution, she says. But those in the region understand the incident in East Palestine is the result of a system-wide danger, one that’s not exclusive to this area of the country.

“There’s too many chemicals being produced, many of them being produced to make plastic, which then pollutes the rest of the environment and is a major component of climate change,” he says. “It all goes back to the fossil fuel industry, which is at the heart of all of this.”

As East Palestine grapples with the aftermath, Brown has some hope for change. He says, unfortunately, “accidents are often the way that we get advances.”

“Love Canal brought the Superfund program into being,” Brown says. “Woburn, Massachusetts led to the reauthorization of that Superfund program. The Denora incident led to the Clean Air Act. The Bhopal, India explosion led to concern here in the U.S. that led to some of the changes also in the Superfund program and to the creation of right to know legislation.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.