Widespread, Lingering Impacts of Norfolk Southern Warrant an Emergency Response
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It’s been over four months since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine in one of the worst environmental disasters in the country’s history, yet Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine has not declared a federal emergency.
On Wednesday, June 15th, residents impacted by the disaster traveled to Ohio’s state house to pressure Governor DeWine to make that declaration. Doing so would open up federal funding for much-needed independent environmental testing and economic relief. The impact of the derailment still looms heavy for many: families unable to return home, farmers questioning the health of their produce and animals, struggling businesses, and continued health impacts like coughing, bloody noses, and rashes. And the impacts go far beyond East Palestine’s borders.
Image by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance, 2023
A regional survey distributed by River Valley Organizing, an advocacy organization based just south of East Palestine shows that residents across Ohio and Pennsylvania felt the impact of this incident, with reports of smells, dark clouds, and health symptoms coming from as far as 50 miles from the derailment and subsequent controlled burn.
FracTracker mapped and analyzed the results of the survey, which contained 409 submissions. It’s important to note that while the survey does contain important insights and evidence of widespread impacts, it’s not a scientific study, and its results have biases based on how it was distributed (mainly through social media) and how participants interpreted the questions.
Mapping the frontline experience
We categorized the responses to the question, “What have you seen, smelled, or heard?” and mapped the results. The first map shows reports nearest to the incident (note that this map has been slightly altered to protect the anonymity of survey participants). People here describe the noise and flames from the initial crash, the “black smoke billowing from the sky,” the smell of burning plastic, and headaches, burning eyes, and other health symptoms.
All of these impacts and more were exacerbated and rippled across the region when three days later, Norfolk Southern executed a controlled detonation of five Norfolk Southern train cars, in a decision that has been questioned by emergency responders.
Map 1. This map shows what impacts residents reported in the surrounding region of the derailment. Data have been slightly modified for anonymity purposes. The dataset was captured by River Valley Organizing between 2/6/23 and 4/28/23.
How far were the derailment’s impacts?
Thirty-percent of the reports came from within East Palestine’s borders, and sixty-five percent are within a ten mile radius of the site. The farthest survey responses come from a single report in Middletown, Ohio (223 miles away), two reports in Amherst (98 miles), two reports in Lake County, Ohio (72-75 miles away) and three reports in or just outside of Pittsburgh (36-39 miles away).
Map 2. This map shows what impacts residents reported closest to the derailment. Data have been slightly modified for anonymity purposes. The dataset was captured by River Valley Organizing between 2/6/23 and 4/28/23.
People farther away are probably less likely to find the survey on River Valley Organizing’s social media, but it’s also harder to attribute the cause of a single report far from the site to the derailment. Towns like Youngstown (about 16 to 23 miles from the site), however have a concentration of reports, and also align with air modeling conducted by the CREATE Lab.
The CREATE Lab, part of Carnegie Mellon University, modeled an 18-mile plume with elevated levels of air pollution (specifically particulate matter, or PM 2.5) headed in that direction (Map 3) on February 6th, the day of the controlled detonation. They found that there are 16,937 people within this region, and 26% of them are older than 65, making them more vulnerable to the health impacts of this event. Click here to see an animation of the plume over time.
Map 3. This map shows the modeled average concentration of primary air pollutants from the railway’s controlled release in East Palestine, OH. The meteorological data used covered 2/6/2023-2/8/2023. Map made by the CREATE Lab.
The initial wind direction during the start of the controlled burn, however, was headed in the opposite direction, towards Pittsburgh. The US EPA released an analysis to identify soils most impacted by smoke and soot, and found this region (towards Ohioville, Pennsylvania) as experiencing the highest concentration of soot falling from the controlled burn, and the region to the northwest still impacted, but to a lesser extent (Map 4).
Map 4. The Interagency Modeling and Atmospheric Assessment Center (IMAAC) constructed this map at the request of the US EPA to estimate the extent and concentration of soot deposited into the environment from the February 6 controlled detonation of five train cars. Source.
People in nearby towns describe the smoke passing over their homes “in a matter of minutes” after the burn. Drivers reported becoming suddenly overwhelmed by the foul-smelling air, which one person described as “so bad it took my breath away,” and another said it “feels as if it’s on our lips.” Many people who were not told to evacuate left after the burn began, and expressed frustration that they were not encouraged to evacuate or given more information about what the controlled detonation would be like. Others came back after the order was lifted, only to experience headaches, coughing, and other health effects within minutes of being home and chose to evacuate again.
What the reports show
The most commonly reported topic was the smell. Over half of the survey participants talk about the smell, which they describe as “bleach,” “burning plastic,” “sweet,” and many just label it a “chemical smell.” Some residents shared that the smell permeated their homes, and some people believed the smell to be traveling along Leslie Run creek.
While the initial survey did not ask directly about health impacts, 39% of residents described human or animal health impacts. The most common impact they described was throat irritation or coughing, followed by headaches or migraines. Other commonly reported health impacts were impacts to skin and/or rashes, and stinging and burning eyes. Many people shared feelings of fear and anxiety over not knowing what health hazards they were exposed to, and what long-term impacts they may be facing. Residents were not given clear guidance following the incident, and many survey participants noted feeling scared to wash their clothes, take a shower, and let their pets outside.
Ongoing health research
Environmental scientists at the University of Kentucky, led by Dr. Erin Haynes, have launched an online health tracking survey, which will elucidate the anecdotal reports like the ones from River Valley Organizing’s survey. Adults near the derailment (in Columbiana, Mahoning, Stark, Carroll and Jefferson Counties in Ohio, Beaver and Lawrence Counties in Pennsylvania, and Hancock County, West Virginia) are encouraged to participate in the study’s brief online survey. The research team will be conducting long-term research to assess potential health effects, and is working in collaboration with local residents to guide this work. Learn more here.
Thirty-one survey participants talked about animal health impacts, and the most common impact people described was seeing dead fish. Following the derailment, chemicals in the train cars, including butyl acrylate spilled into Sulphur Run, which flows into Leslie Run and then North Fork Little Beaver Creek and eventually the Ohio River.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) reported that an estimated 38,222 minnows were potentially killed as a result of the derailment, and that an additional 5,500 other aquatic species (small fish, crayfish, amphibians and macroinvertebrates) were also potentially killed along a 5-mile span from the train derailment site near Sulphur Run to where Bull Creek flows into the North Fork of Little Beaver Creek. The ODNR believes that these deaths occurred immediately after the derailment. Water samples conducted by the Ohio EPA and United States EPA found elevated levels of butyl acrylate and other chemicals, which have since declined. You can find the latest surface water monitoring results here.
Map 5. A map of the North Fork Little Beaver Creek Watershed. The train derailment released chemicals into Sulphur Run, which drains into Leslie Run and North Fork Little Beaver Creek and eventually the Ohio River. Residents reported dead fish and regulators documented chemical impacts in these waterways.
The disaster warrants an emergency response
Governor DeWine has requested two extensions on the deadline for Ohio to request a major disaster declaration, most recently on June 13, 2023. In the letter to FEMA, the Governor wrote, “This extension would allow the State of Ohio to continue its efforts to ensure that Norfolk Southern provides the impacted areas with resources needed to recover from the event, including financial assistance, and to identify any gaps in areas of recovery where federal assistance may be needed.”
Hundreds of reports from the frontlines prove that the impacts of this disaster were widespread and life-altering. Concerned about lingering toxic impacts, many residents have left, leaving behind homes they cannot sell, while others cannot afford to leave and live in fear about what risks they face. While Norfolk Southern and public agencies will never be able to take away the intense loss residents have already experienced, independent environmental testing and compensation for the financial losses will make it easier for residents to make decisions that protect their families’ health. And for that, we need Governor DeWine to seek federal support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
References & Where to Learn More
- Health Tracking Study conducted by the University of Kentucky College of Public Health, led by Dr. Erin Haynes
- Ohio EPA’s latest surface water monitoring results
- Off the Rails: An Exploration of the Train Derailment in East Palestine – FracTracker Alliance
- East Palestine Train Derailment Waste: Community Impacts
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