Toxic fumes

The EPA has ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for all clean up costs at the Ohio derailment site

Federal regulars stepped in after growing outrage at the company's response
The town of East Palestine is offering home air testing for residents worried about the lingering effects of the chemical spill.
The town of East Palestine is offering home air testing for residents worried about the lingering effects of the chemical spill.
Image: Michael Swensen (Getty Images)
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Federal regulators from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up the toxic chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio. It was a train operated by the transportation company that derailed, causing the spill.

Rather than clean up the toxic contamination on its own, as Norfolk Southern had promised to do, the EPA announced Feb. 21 that it would require the company to follow a cleanup plan approved by the agency. It also announced that Norfolk Southern will have to pay for remediation costs, as well as personal cleaning services the EPA will offer to residents and businesses.

“EPA’s order will ensure the company is held accountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of this community,” Regan said in a statement. “Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they’ve inflicted on this community.”

If Norfolk Southern fails to meet the requirements of the planned clean up, the EPA will finish the job, and fine the company three times the cost of anything it failed to do.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw visited East Palestine last week, where he toured the damage and met with local residents, promising that the company will remain in East Palestine as long as help is needed.

Timeline of the accident

Feb. 3: At about 9 pm, 38 rail cars derailed, sparking a fire that damaged an additional 12 cars. Eleven of the derailed cars were carrying toxic chemicals. An initial evacuation is ordered for about half of the town’s 4,761 residents.

Feb. 4: The town of East Palestine issues an emergency proclamation, and town officials give a press conference stating that while air quality readings are safe, dangerous chemicals spilled into local streams.

Feb. 5: With the fire still raging, town officials confirm that one of the cars carried vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical. Firefighters are instructed to step back from the scene, and Ohio governor Mike Dewine deploys the National Guard.

Feb. 6: With temperatures rising to dangerous levels in the car carrying vinyl chloride, state officials and engineers from Norfolk Southern decide to perform a controlled release and burn off the chemicals. The ensuing explosion causes a massive plume of smoke.

Feb. 8: The emergency evacuation order is lifted by DeWine after air quality samples consistently show safe readings.

Feb. 13: The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates that the spill caused the deaths of approximately 3,500 fish in 75 miles of streams.

Feb. 15: Representatives from Norfolk Southern fail to show up at an East Palestine town hall, citing threats of physical violence against its employees. Local police say they were not aware of any threats. 

Feb. 17: A health clinic in town is opened for residents of East Palestine. The state fire marshal says the initial firefighters on the scene were not informed of the toxins while putting out the fire.

What chemicals spilled in Ohio?

The EPA has published a complete list of all the toxic chemicals the train was carrying. Here are the most dangerous:

Vinyl Chloride: The most concentrated chemical in the train, vinyl chloride takes the form of an odorless gas that is used in the production of PCV plastic. Highly flammable, it was the source of the dense smoke after the initial explosion. Extended exposure can cause cancer.

Butyl Acrylate: A liquid used to make resins and paints, exposure can cause nausea and vomiting, as well as allergic reactions.

Benzene: Commonly used in plastics, resin, and some pesticides, Benzene is a light yellow liquid that evaporates quickly and can cause drowsiness, dizziness, and vomiting. High levels of immediate exposure can cause unconsciousness and death, while low levels of long-term exposure can cause issues with blood, bone marrow, and the immune system.

Ethyl hexyl acrylate: A compound that can pose dangers to the skin, eyes, and respiratory system.

Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether: A highly flammable compound, vapors produced by the burning of ethylene glycol monobutyl can cause cancer, and pose risks to pregnant women and young children. In the short term, it can cause nausea, headaches, and dizziness. It is mainly used in paints and varnish.

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