As a public health and environmental disaster unfolds following the derailment and explosion of a toxic-chemical cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, advocacy groups renewed their challenge to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) 2018 repeal of a regulation requiring electronic brake systems for trains carrying hazardous and flammable material.
In 2018, the federal agencies charged with regulating hazardous materials on trains actually removed safety rules requiring modern braking systems. But they failed to conduct mandated safety tests, used inaccurately low estimates of accidents and risks, and restricted public participation. Earthjustice, on behalf of Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Riverkeeper, Washington Conservation Action, and Stand, appealed the rule, but the agencies failed to respond, siding with companies like Norfolk Southern, who lobbied against more stringent safety requirements. The DOT’s silence has meant more explosive tank cars with “Civil War-era braking systems” traveling through towns and neighborhoods.
“It should not take another exploding train to get DOT’s attention,” said Earthjustice Attorney Kristen Boyles. “Communities can’t keep trains out, can’t get safety measures, can’t know what trains are carrying, and yet are left with the human health and environmental problems when there’s an accident.”
Earthjustice’s appeal focused on trains carrying large amounts of volatile crude oil in long unit trains, and it is not clear whether the Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals in Ohio would have been covered by DOT’s repealed brake system requirement. What is clear, however, is that the agency has failed to require up-to-date, modern brake systems for most trains carrying explosively toxic materials.
The long-term impacts of the Feb. 3 toxic chemical explosions on people’s health are yet unknown, but residents have reported experiencing nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, and headaches. It has also been confirmed that the hazardous chemicals have spilled into the Ohio River, which covers 14 states and provides drinking water to more than 5 million people. The state confirmed the contaminated waterways have led to the deaths of at least 3,500 fish. Environmental groups have called on Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to declare a state of emergency and formally ask President Joe Biden for FEMA aid so that affected residents can get immediate help.
Following the explosions, state officials ordered residents living within a mile of the site to evacuate immediately, said River Valley Organizing Development Director Emily Wright, who lives a few miles from the disaster site. Many East Palestine community members sheltered in a local high school as they had nowhere else to go. Residents in other areas in Ohio surrounding the site and in Beaver County, Pennsylvania were also told to evacuate.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the water, air, and soil surrounding the disaster site have been contaminated by hazardous and carcinogenic petrochemical derivatives used in factories to make paint, adhesives, plastics, and more. Despite the EPA’s greenlight for residents to return home a week after the explosions, the agency cannot say what kind of health impact this amount of exposure to these hazardous chemicals will have on people.
Petrochemicals are toxic chemicals derived from oil and gas that are used to make a variety of substances, including plastics. As the U.S. shifts to clean energy, fossil fuel companies are turning to petrochemicals to protect their profits. EPA must adopt stronger protections from these chemicals across their life cycles — including how they are transported — to protect against chemical disasters, as well as the everyday exposures, that are poisoning communities.
Earthjustice is representing Stand, Waterkeeper Alliance, Riverkeeper, Puget Soundkeeper, Washington Conservation Action, and the Sierra Club.
“The disaster unfolding in East Palestine could irreversibly harm people’s health and wildlife, and without immediate action the next incident could be even more catastrophic,” said Daniel E. Estrin, Waterkeeper Alliance’s General Counsel. “While the cause of this accident has not definitively been established, it has been clear for several years that modern braking systems are essential to protecting our communities from the increasing threat of trains carrying dangerous products like explosive oil, toxic gasses, and carcinogenic chemicals through the hearts of our neighborhoods and watersheds.”
“Following the recent derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the dangers of transporting hazardous substances by rail have been made abundantly clear,” said Riverkeeper Legal Fellow Chase Lindemann. “The DOT can reduce the risks of these accidents by requiring long sought after safety features, and it is our hope that the Department will work with us to take a necessary next step in protecting the safety of our communities and environments.”
“Railroads crisscross the nation running along our waterfronts, bridging our rivers, and rolling through our neighborhoods,” said Sean Dixon, Executive Director at Puget Soundkeeper. “Reliance on century-old braking technology is unacceptably negligent; the DOT cannot continue to delay modernization of this vital aspect of rail safety. Hazardous, flammable cargos of dangerous chemicals and volatile hydrocarbons present an undeniable threat to public health and the environment – a threat that must be mitigated, immediately.”
“We all deserve to live in safe and healthy communities no matter if we live along a rail line or the shoreline,”said Rebecca Ponzio, Climate and Fossil Fuel Program Director at Washington Conservation Action. “The railroad industry and fossil fuel companies have lobbied to avoid accountability for too long on critical safety measures. It is time to make sure they are held accountable to the highest safety standards to protect the health and well-being of our water, air and people.”
“Unbelievably, another Norfolk Southern train derailed this week in Michigan. It’s troubling that the revised safety regulations clearly do not go far enough to prevent such disasters, and the government’s ability to respond and provide essential disclosures to the community is far from adequate,” said Devorah Ancel, Senior Attorney at the Sierra Club. “There is simply no excuse for these shortfalls, given the slew of disasters that occurred in the past 10 years. The Biden Administration must do everything in its power to protect the people in East Palestine and other rail-adjacent communities from the devastating impacts of train accidents and explosions.”