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Safety regulator says hazardous decision after train cars derailed in Ohio was not necessary: 'There was another option'

Soon after the controlled burn made it possible to remove the tank cars, freight was seen moving on the tracks again.

Soon after the controlled burn made it possible to remove the tank cars, freight was seen moving on the tracks again.

Photo Credit: NTSB

Train derailments, which mostly happen in rail yards, sometimes take place on rail tracks near communities. When an incident occurs, it can create hazardous threats that last long afterward.

What's happening?

As reported by CNN Business, a controlled burn following the shocking 2023 train derailment that took place in East Palestine, Ohio, was deemed "not necessary" by National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy

Last year, a freight train of the Norfolk Southern company derailed in East Palestine, releasing over a million pounds of toxic chemicals into the land and atmosphere, as CNN reported. 

Three days later, a controlled burn occurred, reportedly to prevent a possible explosion of the five railroad tank cars filled with vinyl chloride, a colorless gas used for plastic products and packaging materials.

Per CNN, Homendy's testimony revealed that executives from Oxy Vinyls, the company that owned the chemicals in the tank cars, were present at the derailment site, telling Norfolk Southern no explosion was likely, meaning a controlled burn could be avoided. 

"When advice was given to the governor of Ohio, to the incident commander, they were not given full information because no one was told Oxy Vinyls was on scene," Homendy said. 

Now, CNN notes that local residents are still reporting health complaints, such as heaviness in their chests and burning eye sensations. 

"There was another option: let it cool down," Homendy shared during a Senate hearing. 

Why is the controlled burn concerning?

Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance indicated that the controlled burn may have done more harm than good. 

Soon after the controlled burn made it possible to remove the tank cars, freight was seen moving on the tracks again. Sen. Vance believes that the controlled burn is responsible for having "poisoned a lot of people," wondering, per CNN, whether it may have been carried out "to move traffic and freight more quickly."  

A March 2023 news release by NC State University added that nine of the 50 chemicals the Environmental Protection Agency had been monitoring post-derailment were higher than normal in the area, including the chemical acrolein. 

"Elevated levels of acrolein are consistent with reports of lung and throat irritation," said Jennifer Richmond-Bryant, an associate professor at the College of Natural Resources who studies the effects of air pollution on humans. 

When toxins are released into the air, water, or soil, public health is compromised. Health issues linked to harmful chemicals range from respiratory problems or skin conditions to cancer or neurological disorders.

What can be done to lessen the impact of train derailments? 

According to the Urban Institute, about 140,000 miles of U.S. railroads go through rural communities and tribal lands, which are generally less prepared to handle such disasters. 

Proper prevention can help hold companies accountable and protect public health at the same time. Some options include requiring railroads to provide cargo information in the event of a crash or paying into a retrospective premium fund.

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