Statistically speaking, commercial rail transport of oil, liquefied gas, chemicals and other hazardous materials is very safe.
Just don’t try telling that to the residents of East Palestine, Ohio whose lives were upended by the Norfolk Southern train derailment.
The results of a controlled burn of toxic chemicals in damaged rail cars and untold spillage of chemicals that killed fish in the Ohio River won’t be fully known a while.
Forced to burn off toxic chemicals
Fourteen of the train’s cars carried vinyl chloride, a flammable and toxic gas used in making PVC pipes, wiring and other materials. Norfolk Southern deliberately released vinyl chloride from breached railcars and burned them to avoid cataclysmic explosions that threatened to level the town.
Two gas byproducts from burning vinyl chloride are phosgene (used to make mustard gas in World War I) and hydrogen chloride. For days, dark clouds hovered over the town.
In addition to vinyl chloride, EPA kept track of ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl, butyl acrylate and isobutylene running down storm drains.
Five days after the train fire went out, EPA air monitoring didn’t detect any chemicals of concern.
Were faulty brakes to blame?
Safety investigations will focus on the train’s brakes. Norfolk Southern fought rules to update air brakes to hydraulic brakes.
One of the rail car’s axles failed due to faulty bearings. The train crew applied emergency brakes but they couldn’t stop the train smoothly and safely. We’ll learn more about the age and condition of the train’s braking system soon.
Like other U.S. railways, Norfolk Southern is owned by hedge funds.