The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Officials burned off toxic chemicals from Ohio train. Was it the right move?

The “controlled release” of chemicals from the derailment was aimed at avoiding an explosion, but elected leaders and others are calling it into question.

A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled release of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train, on Feb. 6. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
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EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — It was an emergency decision that unleashed a gigantic black cloud over this Ohio town and deep into Pennsylvania. On Feb. 6, officials authorized a “controlled release” and burn-off of hazardous chemicals from derailed train cars to avoid what they said could be a potential catastrophic explosion.

But two weeks after the derailment, some elected leaders and residents are questioning aspects of this controlled release, including whether it was done for safety reasons or to allow Norfolk Southern to quickly clear the tracks and resume rail operations. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro has been among the most critical.

“Norfolk Southern failed to explore all potential courses of action, including some that may have kept the rail line closed longer but could have resulted in a safer overall approach for first responders, residents and the environment,” Shapiro, a Democrat, wrote in a letter Tuesday to Alan Shaw, president and chief executive of Norfolk Southern.

The reexamination of such early decisions come as many of East Palestine’s 4,700 residents remain fearful of the toxic releases, politicians in both parties attempt to assign blame, and derailments elsewhere raise questions about how the U.S. oversees trains carrying hazardous materials. While initial monitoring does not indicate a major environmental catastrophe near East Palestine, the incident’s long-term consequences remain unknown, sowing distrust and confusion about its true impact.

In his letter, Shapiro accused the railroad company of giving “inaccurate information and conflicting modeling about the impact of the controlled release” and not informing authorities about the number of rail cars that contained dangerous chemicals, which they intended to burn. The company failed to notify state and local agencies responding to the incident about its decision to vent and burn all five cars containing vinyl chloride instead of one.

Norfolk Southern did not immediately respond to Shapiro’s letter, but the decision to conduct the controlled release went beyond the railway. It also included the Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio EPA officials.

The move, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said at the time, was needed to prevent a “major explosion” in East Palestine that could send shrapnel flying as far as a mile after the railroad company reported a sudden temperature change in one of the tankers carrying “vinyl chloride,” a colorless compound that is a human carcinogen and can be deadly if inhaled.

Other lawmakers, in both parties, are also concerned. In a letter addressed to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, a group of senators say Ohio and Pennsylvania residents fear the possible exposure to additional toxic gases that may have been released into the air when first responders were asked to carry out the controlled burn.

Two days after the train derailed on Feb. 3, DeWine was presented with two “bad options”: Either move forward with the controlled release, or let the fire burn until it died out — if it didn’t explode before then, which was highly likely — his spokesman, Dan Tierney, told The Washington Post.

“It was not an option between [controlled] release or no release,” Tierney said. “It was an option between controlled release or an uncontrolled explosion with shrapnel.”

DeWine said the decision to move forward with the controlled release ultimately came up to him and the town’s fire chief, and he still stands by it.

“When I arrived there that morning, we had a long conversation trying to determine the risk of doing the controlled release versus the risk of doing nothing and waiting,” DeWine said during a Friday news conference. “It was a balancing test.”

A spokesperson with Norfolk Southern did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday on officials’ decision to move forward with the controlled release. The EPA and the Ohio EPA also did not respond to messages from The Post.

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said there was little time to weigh alternatives to the controlled release as temperatures climbed rapidly inside one rail car.

“We had 15 degrees to make a decision,” Conaway told The Post. “It definitely would have blown up.” He called any suggestion that it was to get rail traffic back operating “absolutely false.”

But some residents remain skeptical about whether the controlled release was the best way to proceed.

Given the nosebleeds, upset stomach and breathing problems he says he experiences every time he comes near the derailment site, Richard Moffett said he wonders whether the chemical release was necessary or effective.

There’s no way to prove it, he said.

“I think I would have took my chances,” he said. “The fire was burning. “Either way, he said, “They should have let people know what we were in for before they did it.”

Following the derailment, DeWine said officers knocked on doors three times to order residents within the one-mile radius of the incident to evacuate because they were moving forward with the controlled release.

After the incident, federal and local officials repeatedly told residents that the air quality remains safe. Earlier this week, authorities advised residents of the town to drink bottled water out of an abundance of caution. On Friday, DeWine said only residents with private wells should continue drinking bottled water until more conclusive test results come back.

Residents in East Palestine, Ohio were picking up bottled water on Friday and wondering about lasting health effects from a train derailment two weeks ago. (Video: Joyce Koh, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

It was 9 p.m. on Feb. 3 when 50 cars of a 141-car Norfolk Southern train derailed, igniting a large blaze near the hazardous chemicals that kept firefighters away for days. The derailment, which caused no injuries, was probably caused by mechanical issues on one of the rail car axles, the National Transportation Safety Board has said.

More than 1,000 people — including residents, business owners and others — have been affected or harmed by exposure, estimated one of four lawsuits that Ohio and Pennsylvania residents have filed against Norfolk Southern.

Vinyl chloride is highly toxic on its own. Used to manufacture plastics, the odorless, flammable gas poses the greatest danger to first responders and residents living near the accident who might have inhaled it, experts said.

But it can also contaminate water and soil, creating the potential for long-term exposure that could lead to a rare form of liver cancer and cardiovascular problems, said Dr. Maureen Lichtveld, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health.

“From a vulnerability perspective, the greatest risk of exposure is in the train workers as well as the responders, the people who did the burn. They were right there when it happened,” Lichtveld said. “Then of course you extend your circle. Ultimately it becomes really important to follow this cohort of exposure. It’s important to document now what’s happening to people, in addition to the environment.”

Murray McBride, a professor of soil chemistry at Cornell University, said that when vinyl chloride leaches into topsoil, it’s less dangerous because microbes break it down. But if it filters into the subsoil, it can linger for years. Vinyl chloride has been found in the air near decades-old hazardous waste sites that were supposedly cleaned up and then had buildings, including schools, constructed on top of them, McBride said.

Experts said vinyl chloride breaks down in the air relatively quickly. But the decision to gradually release and burn it may not only have added to the mixture of toxic chemicals, but likely spread them further.

Burning vinyl chloride creates hydrogen chloride and phosgene, a toxic gas that was used as a weapon during World War I. EPA has been screening homes for hydrogen chloride and vinyl chloride, but has not detected the gases thus far.

“If you got a lungful of hydrogen chloride, that would be a very bad thing. But at low concentrations, it’s going to be an irritant,” said Christopher Bowers, a chemistry professor and interim dean at Ohio Northern University.

If hydrogen chloride leaches into the groundwater, or mixes with water vapor in the atmosphere, it can form hydrochloric acid, a component of acid rain.

Some experts said environmental protection officials and toxicologists should examine a broader swath of the region for other hazardous substances dispersed by the burn. This includes dioxins, a family of pollutants that can build up over time in plants and animals and can cause cancer, according to the EPA.

Created during the combustion process, dioxins can attach themselves to soot particles, traveling through the air and eventually settling on lakes, reservoirs and soil, McBride said. High concentrations of these chemicals on farmland where livestock are grazing could cause the animals to ingest the chemicals, potentially contaminating the food chain. McBride said people near the huge plume of smoke were also likely inhaling dioxins coming from the fire.

“It’s anybody’s guess as to whether that may cause cancer 10 or 20 years from now,” McBride said. “But it does increase the risk.”

Bowers said it’s difficult to know whether the controlled release was the best way to contain the fire without having all the facts, but that it is a question worth asking those who were a part of the decision.

“I certainly think it’s fair to ask that question,” Bowers said. “It is possible that the railroad company suggested the controlled release because it was the fastest way to clean up the rails and continue operating.”

Though Bowers said he hopes officials who made the decision did it in good faith because they had the data to back it up.

“They had to know that releasing that material was the lesser of two evils,” Bowers said.

Lichtveld said emergency plans are in measure when an incident involving a derailment and a spill takes place. If there has been an extensive amount of chemicals spilled, Lichtveld said a controlled release is the way to go to prevent the volatile organic compounds from spreading to the soil, ground water and eventually, drinking water.

“In this case, because of the volume of the chemical that was spilled, the decision was to do a controlled release,” Lichtveld said.

Some residents say it’s too late to look back to answer whether the controlled release was the best measure to contain the spill following the derailment.

Aaron Bragg, who owns a rental home less than a quarter of a mile from the derailment site, said he supports the controlled release decision if it meant avoiding a massive explosion, but he questions assurances of safety.

“I don’t feel like we will ever, ever know if that’s the truth or not,” Bragg said. “I pray that is in fact true.”

Bragg has been raising alarm in the neighborhood about the threat of dioxins.

But Bragg, who lives a few miles away in New Waterford, Ohio, said neighbors and environmental officials with whom he has shared his concerns don’t seem to have taken them seriously. “They kind of roll their eyes at me,” he said.

Justine McDaniel contributed to this report.