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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Future environmental disasters must be stopped

Ohio EPA and EPA contractors collect soil and air samples from the derailment site on March 9, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio. Cleanup efforts continue after a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed causing an environmental disaster. Thousands of residents were ordered to evacuate after the area was placed under a state of emergency and temporary evacuation orders. Photo Courtesy of Michael Swensen/Getty Images/TNS.

When a train operated by Norfolk Southern carrying toxic chemicals was derailed in eastern Ohio, nearly 2,000 residents of East Palestine were told to evacuate due to the threat of an explosion.

There were 150 railcars en route to Conway, Pa., 20 of which carried hazardous materials such as vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate and ethylene glycol. After 38 cars derailed and 12 more were damaged, chemicals were released into the air and diverted into a nearby trench. 

That was in early February.

It’s been nearly two months since the train derailed — and the environmental repercussions of the incident have continued to come to light. 

While officials reported no clear evidence of groundwater contamination due to the incident, residents who have returned to the area have reported symptoms such as headaches and vomiting. The clean up of the crash sites involves shipping millions of gallons of wastewater and contaminated soil out of state.

It hasn’t been made entirely clear to what extent the derailment was due to gross negligence of Norfolk Southern or the train operators – in fact, the preliminary findings from the National Transportation Safety Board seem to dismiss this case as nothing more than a fluke accident. 

But we’ve seen these “fluke” accidents happen before – caused by a lack of regulation and oversight, ultimately leading to dangerous environmental disasters.  

Another “fluke” accident? The notorious Duke Energy coal ash spill of 2014 — a pipe that randomly burst leading to ash release from one of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds into the Dan River. Despite a similar spill in Kingston, Tenn., six years prior, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's coal ash rule (known as Coal Combustion Residuals rule) didn't go into effect until 2015. 

The Dan River incident polluted a major watershed, leaving Duke Energy to foot a $3 million bill in damages. The damage done to Duke Energy’s bottom line is minuscule compared to the damages done to the land, and people, of North Carolina. 

In the case of Norfolk Southern, the train derailment comes after a 2015 Obama administration rule requiring the installation of electronic braking systems was overturned by the Trump administration. It’s unclear whether the policy would have made a difference in East Palestine even before being overturned, but the Trump White House's rollback of regulation serves as proof that the severe lack of safety regulations for the railroad industry are only increasing. 

Tougher standards must be required for train cars carrying hazardous materials to prevent further spills. 

But now, Norfolk-Southern has been put in charge of their own cleanup. 

There is little to no assurance that they won’t cut corners in that respect, either. The company's CEO can’t even show up to the town hall the company hosted to discuss the derailment. 

To reiterate: Norfolk Southern hosted a town hall to answer the questions from people whose lives they irreversibly impacted, and it's CEO didn’t show up. 

Whether Duke Energy or Norfolk Southern, it’s only after the disaster has happened that we recognize the dangers of cost cutting and the lack of vital safety protocols. These corporations will continue to cut corners, they will continue to not show up and politicians will continue to let them get away with it. 

We can never fully root out the damage we do. It seeps down into the roots, the soil, water, blood. Prevention is everything and vigilance is essential. Big corporations and the EPA must work hand in hand to take the crucial steps forward to update safety protocols and refuse to take the cheap way out, not when the health of communities and citizens is on the line.


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