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Ohio fears train spill is a ‘Chernobyl’

The dumping of toxic substances near East Palestine caused by a train accident, has generated fear among the residents of the town.

FILE PHOTO: Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, U.S., February 6, 2023 in this screengrab obtained from a handout video released by the NTSB. NTSBGov/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY./File Photo

On 3 February, a Norfolk Southern company train of about 150 cars carrying highly toxic materials derailed on the outskirts of East Palestine, a small town in Ohio, near the border with Pennsylvania. No one was injured in the accident, but of the thirty-eight wagons that veered off the tracks, eleven of were carrying hazardous materials. Some of the residents of East Palestine now fear that the toxicity of the spillage could lead to a new ‘Chernobyl’.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), most of the train cars were full of non-hazardous cargo, such as cement, steel and frozen food. The train was also carrying vinyl chloride, of which five containers loaded with this highly carcinogenic material derailed. Following the accident, a fire broke out in which federal authorities could not ascertain whether vinyl chloride was burning.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), inhalation of this material can cause respiratory symptoms such as difficulty breathing, as well as neurological symptoms such as headaches and dizziness. Longterm consequences also include liver damage and cancer, if exposure is consistent or highly concentrated. The authorities ordered an immediate evacuation of the town that lasted five days, when the government declared that the town was safe to return to. However, families have already begun to express headaches, dizziness, skin rashes or itchy eyes.

“Life or death” evacuation, but return home only a few days later

Timing and the validity that the area is safe is not widely trusted by residents, since just five days earlier, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, said the evacuation order was “a matter of life and death”. The emergency services knocked door to door and on Sunday a forced evacuation was ordered for those who decided to stay in their homes, as they were at risk of suffering the effects of an explosion from wagons loaded with vinyl chloride.

Norfolk Southern reported that the pressure relief valves of some wagons had stopped working, so it was decided to develop a plan to manually release the wagons and release the polluting materials, with the risk involved.

To protect the environment, we have prepared ditches and embankments in which to drain the material that will later be remediated. When it is safe to do so, manual pressure release will be done through a controlled break of several wagons, and under the supervision of experts and first responders. This operation will be loud and visible,” said the company before the burning event began.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), substances such as vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ethers were released into the air, soil, and surrounding surface waters. However, officials have said that the air quality tests show that the area is safe.

The toxic smell lingers in the town

The smell of toxic products persists in the town, reports La Vanguardia. “It almost seems that we are back to normal, except that we all have this dangerous cloud that is looming, not knowing what it is going to do with our future, hanging over our heads,” said Diana Elzer.

“I am alarmed what could happen in five, ten or 15 years,” said Marcy Henry, a woman living slightly outside the evacuation radius. “When I returned home, the water had a strong smell of bleach,” said Henry to the Spanish newspaper, La Vanguardia.

“On the way home driving near the river, the smell would take your breath away and burn your nose and throat,” said Mr. Henry. The population fears the long-term effects on their health from the spills because, despite explaining to the population that it was safe to return home, the authorities have asked the residents of the town to only drink bottled water.