Lessons from the East Palestine Train Wreck

Scott Deshefy


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

On Feb. 3, thirty-eight Norfolk Southern freight cars derailed in East Palestine, OH resulting in releases, ignition and controlled detonation of roughly 1.6 million pounds of hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride, a carcinogen. Exposed to temperatures too low for pyrolysis, concerns arose that burning those chemicals might have released even more dangerous byproducts. The EPA, therefore, ordered Norfolk Southern to test soil and water samples for a range of toxic substances. Although EPA considers their generation improbable, testing for dioxins was among the analyses performed.

Dioxins are a group of toxic chemicals, including polychlorinated dibenzofurans, which can be generated by incomplete combustion of chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) Aroclors, transforming one toxic substance into another potentially more harmful. As with PCBs, now ubiquitously found in fatty tissue and body burdens of just about every animal on the planet from Homo sapiens to polar bears, dioxin is another manmade chemical that persists in the environment indefinitely. According to EPA, the probability dioxins were released during the East Palestine derailment and fire is low. Frederick Guengerich, however, a toxicologist at Vanderbilt University, feels residents very close to the chemical fire could have been exposed to airborne dioxins, either landing on their skin or being inhaled. Although primary pathways for dioxins to enter the body and do serious harm are usually by consumption of fats and fatty secretions of contaminated animals, skin exposure to dioxins at high enough concentrations can cause intense irritation, lesions and eruptions of skin known as chloracne.

It will take months to fully assess impacts to public health and the environment caused by the East Palestine train wreck. Yet, that endangerment of 4,800 human and countless nonhuman lives should rivet our attention to the need for infrastructure and safety improvements transporting chemicals around the U.S. Such accidents are by no means infrequent. On March 4th, another Norfolk Southern derailment occurred, this time 20 cars in a 212-car train 10 miles north of East Palestine. Five months earlier, a cargo train operated by the same company derailed at an overpass in Sandusky. In early November, 22 cars of a 227-car train carrying rock salt and other materials jumped the tracks east of Akron. Days later, a train transporting garbage derailed between Toronto and Steubenville, dumping its load into the Ohio River. Both those trains also belonged to Norfolk Southern. At a rate of one severe spill, on average, every two days, discharges ─ ranging from train accidents and pipeline ruptures to truck crashes and industrial plant leaks ─ happen with shocking regularity. In January and February this year, over 30 such incidents were reported by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters. In 2022, 188 were recorded, exceeding the 2021 count of 177. Since the coalition began its tallies in April 2020, major chemical releases from U.S. transportation accidents topped 470. That’s not counting thousands of non-mobile breaches of containment in varying severity from leaking underground storage tank systems, aboveground facilities and associated integral piping, most using dispensers with pressurized instead of suction pumps. Pressurized systems dispense product faster and in higher quantities to satisfy impatient customers, but seriously worsen environmental damages when containments are lost.

We all know and should appreciate the dilapidated, outmoded condition of America’s infrastructure from our patched-up twentieth century electrical grid to deteriorating airports, seaports, bridges and tunnels. Until Biden signed legislation to spearhead improvements, prior administrations did little or nothing to rectify the problem even as 21st century transportation and service demands rose. Every day, because of profligate economies, more and more products are shipped across highways and rails. Rails, in particular, are America’s best arteries. Despite pushing limits of train lengths and rail tanker capacities, railroads still provide the safest, most energy efficient mode to move big cargoes, especially large volumes of chemicals. But hazmat releases, comparatively rare among trains, can involve large amounts of contaminants, jeopardizing not only the pristine environment but human urban areas as well. Safety shouldn’t be limited to luck of the draw. Fortunately, the March 4th derailment near Cincinnati involved only four tankers carrying “residual amounts” of polyacrylamide water solution and diesel exhaust fluids. Granted, 99.9% of hazardous materials, moved annually by rail, reaching destinations unscathed sounds safe, but it isn’t anywhere near safe enough.. When some cylindrical tank cars hold over 31,000 gallons, we can and have to do more to improve. Data collected by the Federal Railroad Administration and U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics suggest an average of 1,705 train derailments per year have occurred from 1990 through 2021. Federal inspectors additionally have flagged 36% more hazmat violations in the last five years than the five years prior. Accompanying this trend, rail companies in recent years have relied on Precision Scheduled Railroading to maximize efficiency (and profits) by operating longer and heavier trains. Meanwhile, railroad workers have been reduced, which rail unions say has resulted in cursory inspections, compromised maintenance and trains operating less safe.

Such high frequencies of rail accidents emphasize the need for double-walled tank cars to protect against chemical breaches, the way double-hulled tankers on the high seas protect against marine spills. At the very least, non-pressurized rail tankers carrying hazardous materials should have the same construction as pressurized tank cars carrying LPG, chlorine, anhydrous ammonia, etc. They should be built with thicker, normalized steel and extra head protection to lower the chance of a puncture during a crash. Furthermore, wheel-bearing temperatures have to be monitoring in real time so crews can evaluate those data and act preemptively. The East Palestine derailment probably occurred because a wheel bearing overheated. Trackside heat detectors are supposed to sound an alarm at about 250°F above ambient temperature. But, detectors are placed at variable intervals, and if a crew doesn’t have real time access to those data, alerted only when temperatures trip an alarm, it’s often too late. Wheel bearing temperature sensors have to be placed along tracks at shorter intervals with immediate engineer-monitored readouts so crews can determine a problem and take earlier precautions avoiding derailments. Acoustic detectors, which determine bearing wear conditions by measuring vibrations, also have to be mandated.

Equally important, if not more so, rail companies must be required to retrofit cars with electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes to replace or assist archaic braking systems contributing to pile-ups. Stopping a train’s momentum, like that of an ocean liner, involves long distances. Inertia and mass prevent stopping on a dime. But ECP braking uses electronic controls to activate air-powered brakes in rapid succession along the length of the train. By contrast, conventional systems rely on engineers’ reaction times and air flows in and out of brake pipes running the length of the train to stop individual cars. Braking applied in the locomotive can take over a minute to propagate to the back of a long freight train. The result: uneven braking produces forces that build up between cars and force sections of train behind a derailment to keep moving. ECP braking systems, the safest and most advanced in the world, use electrical impulses to activate air brakes, slowing every car in the train in rapid, near-instantaneous succession. ECP brakes slow and stop trains up to 70% faster than conventional air-activated brakes, which functionally haven’t changed since George Westinghouse invented them in 1868. In 2015, the Obama administration instituted new rules on transportation of crude oil, which were criticized for being too soft. Many of those regulations were rolled back by Donald Trump, including one mandating ECP brakes, claiming the safety measure was too costly. That claim proved to be based on erroneous estimates. A 2015 lobbying disclosure also shows Norfolk Southern not only opposed ECP braking requirements, but lobbied against additional speed limitations on rails as well.

Due to corporate greed and the myopic ineptitude, procrastination and obstructionism of two-party politics, Republicans and Democrats alike have repeatedly kicked the infrastructure can down the road until the Biden administration’s recent initiatives. Rather than face facts and recognize truth, we’ve become a society habitually climbing down rabbit holes only to find them occupied by Brazilian wandering spiders and rattlesnakes. Climate change, mass extinctions, pandemics, affordable and reliable healthcare, population growth, human migration and other crises are now so daunting a handful of countries are developing, in collaboration with universities and transnational organizations, plans to integrate new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and robotics, into planning their futures. The hope is to provide and even anticipate individuals’ needs while minimizing waste. The old paradigm of making short-term decisions based on profit margins and the economy, not what’s best for the planet, has clearly failed all of us but the rich and needs to be jettisoned. No African suffering famine or Californian, trapped in a Doctor Zhivago “Ice House” on steroids, would challenge that premise.

Overdependence on computers and algorithms has a number of drawbacks as surveillance capitalism makes clear. As we’ve learned from marketing profiles, social media and a commoditized Internet, too much AI risks our becoming some Brave New World Aldous Huxley envisioned, full of comfortably debt-ridden dolts clinging to illusions of certainty. Subsets of our population are already so inclined. Nonetheless, AI will be a necessary agent in preserving the planet, so long as we can program computers to eschew politics and avoid the same pitfalls and stupidities steering decision-making protocols towards calamities to date. Compounding the problem, gargantuan growth of transnational corporations and financial entities, aided and abetted by rapid developments in communication, advertising, transport and manufacturing capabilities, have transformed modern capitalism into a parasite. Like a 1950s sci-fi monster, it’s become an insatiably rapacious predator increasingly powerful, aggressive and unmanageable with each new ingesting of labor and earnings. That metamorphosis occurred mostly because we allowed social contracts within our society and between humans and the rest of the natural world to be annulled. Also, global economies and the web have ethically emancipated managers, CEOs and speculators from territorial constraints, commitments to communities, and moral obligations.

To keep the living planet, ourselves included, from going airborne with Thelma and Louise, we must abort the international model of decision-making designed for consuming goods and services and accumulating wealth.  Instead, we must learn to recognize destructive impulses of mainstream culture and acknowledge the anti-democratic social force surveillance capitalism has become. That means governing by prioritizing species preservation, resource conservation and restoration of ecological communities, in essence what E.O. Wilson prescribes in his book Half-Earth. With an eye towards ecosystem sustainability and regenerative health of the planet, legislative responsibility means augmenting systems and conditions for life rather than destroying them, creating what Glenn McLaren, Jeremy Lent and other “process thinkers,” sociologists, and social philosophers term “ecological civilization.” Office-seekers promising to do otherwise should be summarily weeded out.

As animals, we’re intimately connected to and existentially dependent on natural processes and cycles we’ve collectively disrupted, perhaps irreversibly. Nature can no longer be viewed as a resource to be exploited. Nor can we continue to believe the lie technology alone can solve our biggest problems. At every crossroad encountered in our cultural evolution we must reject those anachronistic notions which depict humans solely as selfish individuals, choosing instead, at every turn, the bio-centric path to follow. Cities, agriculture, energy production and jobs need to be redesigned on ecological principles and an inclusive economy serving everyone, nonhuman brethren no less than ourselves. Otherwise, we not only doom the biosphere to ravages of global warming, climate change, pandemics, overpopulation, pollution and habitat loss, we surrender to the vices and centralized power of surveillance capitalism. We self-incarcerate in the kind panopticism described by Michel Foucault and first envisioned by Samuel and Jeremy Bentham, a circular prison of constant scrutiny and close observation in which servitude is made to look voluntary and power is both visible and unverifiable. If we can’t escape that captivity, we must assure that our children and grandchildren can, transforming education to prepare students less for the corporate marketplace and more for depth and breadth of knowledge and emotional maturity. That wisdom will enable them to discern and appreciate the natural world and their connectedness to it, guaranteeing a measure of well-being and quality of life with which to decentralize power and mitigate harm, not only for themselves but for others.

Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.