Derailments aren’t uncommon, but hazmat spills are rare. Here’s what we know.

After a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, portions were still on fire the next day. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
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It’s been two weeks since a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in northeastern Ohio, bursting into flames and spilling a flammable gas near a small town. Federal investigators are working to determine what caused the Feb. 3 derailment, which prompted evacuation orders and set off a public health scare.

Images showing a fireball and billowing smoke rising into the sky over decoupled rail cars have increasingly raised questions in recent days: Are the nation’s railways safe?

According to experts and federal rail incident data, such occurrences involving hazmat releases are rare. Industry-wide, derailments themselves aren’t uncommon, but most don’t result in injuries or environmental disasters. When a major incident occurs, however, it can take a significant toll on communities and take years to recover.

The Ohio train derailment and chemical spill

The latest: Senators questioned Norfolk Southern’s CEO on rail safety records as Ohio is suing the freight company. In February, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the Ohio train derailment.

What are the health risks of the chemical spill? One toxic gas, vinyl chloride, was burned after the derailment, sending various toxins and chemicals into the air. The EPA is handling the disaster response.

The politics: Amid a partisan divide over the disaster response, former president Donald Trump and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the derailment site.

Who is impacted? The Biden administration is taking heat for not doing enough to help, while Ohio residents are angry after Norfolk Southern backed out of a town hall addressing the response. The derailment also killed more than 43,000 aquatic animals in the area. Here’s what to know about the derailment’s toxic plume.