On Feb. 3, a train carrying dangerous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, a town roughly 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. In the following two weeks, two more accidents involving the mass spillage of toxic chemicals took place across the U.S.
On Feb. 13, another train derailed near the town of Splendora, Texas, after colliding with an 18-wheeler. The Union Pacific rail company sent a hazardous materials team to investigate, as the train was also carrying dangerous chemicals.
And on Feb. 14, on Interstate 10 close to Tucson, Arizona, a commercial truck carrying nitric acid — a flammable liquid — crashed, releasing huge plumes of red and yellow smoke.
Yellow and red fumes pouring out of the truck that overturned in Tucson, Arizona.— Citizen Free Press (@CitizenFreePres) February 14, 2023
Tucson Fire Hazmat Team is on the scene and working to control the hazmat and brush fire incidents at Rita Rd on I-10. pic.twitter.com/m61Cuo0E7G
How dangerous are these toxic spills?
The Texas train derailment caused 21 train cars to come off the tracks and it took first responders at least 15 hours to clear the crash site.
Luckily, the Hazmat crews claimed that none of the derailed cars leaked hazardous chemicals. The 18-wheeler did leak about 100 gallons of diesel as well as fifteen quarts of oil, but of the three accidents, this one seemingly poses the smallest threat to public safety.
The Arizona truck crash caused fumes from nitric acid — which is used to produce fertilizers, explosives, and dyes — to spew into the air, alarming onlookers, and resulting in a shelter-in-place order for those within a mile of the crash.
Included in the order was a recommendation to turn off heaters and air conditioning units, which could bring outdoor air inside homes.
A video capturing the terrifying scene has now circulated on Twitter, with more than 12 million views.
🚨#BREAKING: Shelter in place has a been issued due hazardous toxic chemicals leaking ⁰— R A W S A L E R T S (@rawsalerts) February 14, 2023
📌#Tucson | #Arizona
Currently authorities have issued a hazmat alert and a ‘shelter in place’ warning is in effect for all individuals within a mile radius in Tucson Arizona, after a truck… https://t.co/tyCJn8jFni pic.twitter.com/F4UjjGtgYN
“[The fumes were] a color I’d never seen in vapor form before,” one man driving past the crash told CNN. “So I decided to start recording … Just in case Tucson were to turn into East Palestine.”
The brightly colored fumes coming from the nitric acid can cause serious health impacts if exposure is prolonged. Besides irritating people’s eyes and skin, the chemical can cause bronchitis or pulmonary edema, the New York Post reports.
Afterward, Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs tweeted that the section of the interstate near where the spill occurred would be closed off until further notice.
🚨ALERT: I-10 is closed in both directions between Rita Rd & Kolb Rd in Tucson due to a hazmat spill.— Governor Katie Hobbs (@GovernorHobbs) February 15, 2023
Updates are available here: https://t.co/L9mmhomScV https://t.co/5h3wxoPe4z
Meanwhile, on Feb. 15, the Arizona Department of Public Safety extended the perimeter for the shelter-in-place order from one to three miles out of an abundance of caution.
By far the most devastating of these disasters is the Feb. 3 train derailment in Ohio. The derailed train cars carried several hazardous materials, including the highly flammable and toxic substance vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastics.
After the train derailed, it caught fire, leading to intense smoke plumes filling the sky, causing authorities to immediately announce both an evacuation order as well as a state of emergency.
To limit the potential for environmental contamination and to prevent an explosion, authorities performed a controlled burn of the vinyl chloride. This controlled burn released phosgene gas — a dangerous chemical used as a weapon during World War I — as well as highly acidic hydrogen chloride.
The EPA noted in a letter to Norfolk Southern — the company operating the crashed train — that several dangerous cancer-causing chemicals “have been and continue to be released to the air, surface soils, and surface waters.”
Because of this, when officials announced the end of the evacuation order on Feb. 8, many were skeptical that it was truly safe to return, especially as residents continued to report new symptoms and strange smells.
“I was surprised when they quickly told the people they can go back home,” Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials expert, told the WKBN news station. “There’s a lot of what-ifs, and we’re going to be looking at this thing five, 10, 15, 20 years down the line and wondering, ‘Gee, cancer clusters could pop up.’”
The blame game
Both governors of Pennsylvania and Ohio, despite their differing political affiliations, were united in blaming Norfolk Southern for the catastrophe.
At a press conference, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine promised to hold the train company accountable.
“The company should pay for everything … they are responsible for this,” DeWine said, Politico reported.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro lambasted Norfolk Southern for quickly opting for the controlled burn without looking closely at other alternatives.
“Prioritizing an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line injected unnecessary risk and created confusion,” Shapiro wrote in a letter to the rail line’s CEO.
Caggiano seemed to agree with Governor Shapiro in his criticisms, telling WKBN, “we basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.”
Others have blamed railroad lobbyists and the Trump administration, which eliminated a safety rule that could have lessened the severity of the accident.
In 2017, the rail industry successfully convinced then-President Trump to end a regulation that required electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, citing cost issues. Rail companies claimed that implementing the rule, which was passed during the Obama administration, would cost $3 billion.
How to help East Palestine
There are several ways to help the residents of the impacted towns. The Brightside Project, a local community nonprofit, has set up a crisis relief fund to aid the East Palestine community.
The Way Station, another east Ohio nonprofit, is aiding with emergency assistance, emotional support, food, and clothing.
Some East Palestine residents have even created GoFundMe campaigns to raise enough cash to leave the community for good. Donating to campaigns like these could help residents who are afraid of returning to their homes escape to cleaner communities.
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