YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – As East Palestine is in the beginning stages of assessing the long-term impact of the train derailment and controlled release of vinyl chloride in the village, there are people about 360 miles away in Pasulsboro, New Jersey who can give them a sense of what the future holds.
A Conrail train derailed in Paulsboro in November 2012. In that case, 20,000 gallons of vinyl chloride were released. A visible vapor cloud could be seen at the time. This was a spill, not a burnoff such as the East Palestine derailment, but in both instances, there was a release of vinyl chloride into the ground, water and air.
The impact on the Paulsboro community is still being felt today. Tracy Carluccio is the deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and lives in New Jersey. The organization keeps tabs on the Delaware River Watershed which includes areas of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and New York. Carluccio is very familiar with what Paulsboro residents went through and worries for those in East Palestine.
“People were concerned about water quality, but in the end, it turned out that the vapor cloud and the air impacts were the greatest,” Carluccio said. “What we saw in Paulsboro is that it really took months and years for the full effects of vinyl chloride to be realized. There were lawsuits brought. There were people who found they had lung damage that was permanent. And then in addition to that, about one in every 10 people experienced an acute reaction to the exposure and went to the emergency room. And some of them did not feel the ill effects in the future, but some of them did.”
VAPOR CLOUD MOVED THROUGH COMMUNITY
And it wasn’t just the health concerns. The environmental impacts reverberated, and the community is still suffering in ways they couldn’t have imagined.
“They are still talking about it. One of the things that people experienced who lived there is they lost property value,” Carluccio said. “It’s a lovely town on the Delaware River, and many families have lived there for generations. It’s a really nice community there in Paulsboro, but they carry this yoke of looking as though they are a polluted mess, and the vinyl chloride contributed to that. There are a lot of other problems, but the vinyl chloride – there have been very few of these well-publicized catastrophes like this, and it’s the only big derailment like that in New Jersey of vinyl chloride. It’s just a black eye for them, the community that is very difficult to overcome,”
IS THERE CONTAMINATION REMAINING?
In East Palestine, there are questions about how Norfolk is disposing of soil in the area. The company said it is taking the soil to another location and separating contaminated soil from soil that is not hazardous and will dispose of both properly. The EPA confirmed that the soil was turned over at the derailment site to reconstruct the rail line, and officials have confirmed that a fish kill happened in Leslie Run and Bull Creek.
“We have estimated based on our sampling and modeling about 3,500 dead fish across that space,” said Mary Metz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Home testing and community air monitoring continue, and as of Tuesday, Feb. 14, the EPA has not found anything extraordinary. It did say “there have been some exceedances of PM2.5 screening values, but those are both upwind and downwind of the derailment site so likely had another cause.”
The most recent update from the NTSB says investigators have identified the rail car that initiated the derailment. It said video showed an overheated wheel bearing moments before the derailment. Fittings from the tanker carrying vinyl chloride are also being examined in addition to the locomotive event recorder.
“Trains have gotten longer, heavier, and they are carrying more hazardous material than they ever have before,” Carluccio said. “As a result, the chance for an accident, the likelihood or the potential for a derailment has increased. And I think this is something we all share that we are facing a situation where safety upgrades are needed.”
WHAT TO DO NOW
Will regulators take note this time? Some lawmakers are promising they will. Ohio Governor DeWine announced Tuesday that the material on the train in East Palestine was not considered a highly hazardous material train and he wants Congress to take action.
“Therefore the railroad was not required to notify anyone here in Ohio what was in the railcars coming through our state. I would think the members of Congress, I would ask them to take a look at this,” DeWine said. “Even though some railcars did have hazardous material on board, and while most of them did not, that’s why it was not categorized as a high hazardous material train. Frankly, if this is true, and I am told this is true, this is absurd”
If it’s absurdity then it’s one that East Palestine shares with Paulsboro. Very few residents ever know what is traveling through their towns, and that’s something Carluccio says needs to change.
“I think what we found here in New Jersey is that people were really unaware that this kind of toxic compound was going through their backyards every day,” Carluccio said. “The train tracks in Paulsboro, you can throw a stone to the side of a house. It’s 20 feet away. It goes right through the center of town. It’s an everyday occurrence that highly toxic materials, in this case, vinyl chloride, travel where they live and work.”
Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro sent a letter to Norfolk Southern Corporation CEO Alan Shaw, expressing serious concerns regarding the company’s management of the February 3 train derailment, expressing frustration about what he says was Norfolk’s lack of communication with Pennsylvania emergency management at the onset of the derailment and it’s “poor handling of this incident.”
DeWine has vowed that Norfolk will bear the brunt of the cost now and in the future and local lawmakers say they will demand that safety protocols be investigated at the federal level. They said that to the Paulsboro residents in 2012, too.
“We really need to fix these problems. And until they do, it is not right to be exposing the public to the risk of catastrophes like what was experienced in East Palestine and Paulsboro. We have to push, and our elected officials should wake up if they weren’t awake before, they should wake up now and the Biden Administration really needs to do something,” Carluccio said.