It is tragic whenever a horrifying disaster occurs, such as the train derailment near East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month.
As safety professionals, we are in the business of protecting people from hazards. It is particularly galling when we see supposed safety experts make critical errors. These mistakes can have a drastic impact on local communities.
The Ohio train derailment is one of these times. Right from the start, safety experts and federal officials have made critical errors in their handling of this incident, and it could very well kill a town.
Litany Of Errors
At 9 p.m. on February 3, a train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed near East Palestine, sending some 50 cars flying off the rails. Eleven of the cars contained hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride. Life-threatening forever chemicals burst from ruptured tanks, seeping into the soil and water supply of this village of 4,700 in eastern Ohio.
Clearly, something went grievously wrong before the accident, but the mistakes were just starting. For a time, no one could locate the cargo manifest. First responders and officials on the scene were still determining what chemicals they were dealing with. This hampered efforts to contain the spill and protect the town.
Three days later, the residents of East Palestine were told to evacuate their homes for their lives. Emergency experts decided to perform a controlled burn of the remaining volatile chemicals to forestall an explosion. This burn produced a poisonous gas cloud hundreds of feet into the sky, including phosgene, a chemical used as a weapon in World War I. Phosgene is an irritant that can damage the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Acute exposure to the gas is lethal.
The Federal Response
According to the White House, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other federal agencies were at the disaster site within hours. Still, not everyone has been pleased with the response.
Residents have reported dead animals, chemical exposure symptoms, and a pervasive smell in the area. Some 3,500 dead fish have been recovered from the Ohio River in the area, and chemicals have bubbled up from the ground. Local officials in Ohio and lawmakers in Washington are looking for answers from Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
Buttigieg took days before speaking to the media about the incident, a decision he admitted was a mistake in retrospect. When he was questioned about the response, Buttigieg deflected, noting that “there are roughly 1,000 cases a year of a train derailing.”
He is scheduled to be in East Palestine on Thursday, almost three weeks after the accident occurred.
This is a prime example where politics and images get in the way of protecting people. The government needs to focus on doing what is right. There is a lot to dive into here.
Watch our video above as we go over what went wrong and what could be in store for the people of East Palestine.