On Feb. 3 around 8:55p.m., a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The train was carrying hazardous materials, causing it to become a high profile, politicized issue. The environment became dangerous for the health and wellness of both residents and animals.
According to the Associated Press (AP), the cause of the derailment of about 50 freight train cars was a mechanical issue with a rail car axle. Although there were no injuries at the sight of the wreck, concerns have been raised about the air quality, water quality, and a potential blast, causing officials to order an evacuation of local areas.
Some of the cars that were derailed were carrying Butyl acrylate, Ethylhexyl acrylate, and Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether; each substance poses a threat to the health of those in contact with it. In order to avoid a potentially dangerous explosion, officials intentionally released and burned vinyl chloride, another harmful substance.
Burning the substance has also caused the release of two gasses, hydrogen chloride and phosgene, as well as large amounts of black smoke.
“These trains carry several hazardous materials, fossil fuels, and environmental toxins, which can severely impact the environment if released in a wreck,” said sophomore biology student
Nicole Albert. “Ecosystems in today’s world which are already suffering from industrialization cannot afford to take on any more hazards such as toxins released from train wrecks.”
Since the derailment, residents, officials, and politicians have expressed concern as to how the wreck has been handled by the Biden Administration and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, leading this event to go from a safety concern to a political issue.
“I’m not surprised at all that the train wreck and related problems for the residents of East Palestine, Ohio have become politicized,” said SHU political science professor, Dr. Gary Rose. “Virtually every catastrophe these days is politicized and used by both parties for political advantage and I’m disappointed that this is now the norm.”
According to AP News, former President Donald Trump, who visited the site of the derailment, criticized the federal response to the derailment. Trump visited the wreck prior to Buttigieg, leading many to feel that responses have been delayed, despite the risk this event posed to the public.
Republican politicians have used the Biden Administration’s response as leverage in campaigns, accusing them of being neglectful to the local community in the aftermath of the derailment.
“The criticism is deserved because of the tepid response by not only the President but also by Pete Buttigieg,” said Rose. “The apparent lack of concern deserved criticism.”
Despite this backlash, there are some steps the government has taken to ensure the safety of residents in the area. AP News reported that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is monitoring the air and testing homes for vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride, neither of which has been found yet.
Three senators from Pennsylvania and Ohio are also pushing for more safety regulations for railways as a result of this incident, and other recent derailments, according to AP.
Norfolk Southern, the company that owns the freight train involved in the incident, is also under scrutiny. There has been no reported evidence that the train crew was at fault for the derailment. The investigation is still ongoing, and there has been speculation that this could have been prevented.
“I believe that the derailment could have been prevented,” said sophomore health science student Lauren Radi. “With all of the technology today and the number of materials being transported daily, we should know how to avoid accidents like this by now, especially when it includes potentially harmful substances.”
The derailment has caused concern for not only local residents, but people all over the United States. Norfolk Southern and government officials are working to gain back the trust of citizens through statements and action to help those who have been affected.