Hazardous Train Derailments: Everything You Need to Know

Did you know that trains are the most commonly used transportation for hazardous materials? Not only has the freight train been deemed the safest way to move chemicals and other dangerous materials, but it is also the most efficient. However, the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, has brought to light the many ways that this industry is lacking in safety. In this blog, our train accident lawyers take a closer look at the dangers of hazardous train derailments.

The East Palestine Train Derailment of 2023

On the evening of February 3rd, 2023, just before 9 pm local time, a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern Railway derailed on the main track in East Palestine, Ohio. 38 of the train’s 151 cars derailed, and a fire damaged 12 more.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released their preliminary report on the accident on February 14th, looking into the cause of the derailment as well as the hazardous materials the train was carrying. They reported that a broken axle caused the train to crash, an accident that was only worsened by the lack of Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes on the cars.

Approximately 2,000 of East Palestine’s 4,800 residents were evacuated following the crash, all of whom were invited to return to their homes a mere five days later once the EPA and Ohio Department of Natural Resources deemed the area safe.

The Livingston Train Derailment of 1982

East Palestine’s train disaster is a stark reminder of another train derailment that occurred just 40 years before. In 1982, 30 tanker cars of a derailed freight train in Livingston, Louisiana spilled about 200,000 gallons of hazardous chemicals and plagued the local area. Approximately 2,700 people were evacuated within 5 miles of the derailment.

Air and soil cleanup efforts lasted for three decades. Regular water monitoring was funded by the class action settlement that followed the Livingston derailment. A clinic that was established to provide annual physicals and blood tests to residents still stands to this day.

Which Chemicals Was the Norfolk Southern Railway Train Carrying?

20 of the train’s cars were carrying hazardous materials, 11 of which derailed in the accident. The subsequent release of these chemicals has the potential for causing serious long-term health problems in those exposed.

The derailed freight train was carrying a number of hazardous materials, including:

  • Vinyl chloride
  • Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether
  • Ethylhexyl acrylate
  • Isobutylene
  • Butyl acrylates

The fire that started after the East Palestine derailment also released phosgene, a gas deployed as a chemical weapon in the First World War. Exposure to phosgene causes side effects such as eye irritation, dry burning throat, and vomiting.

In order to prevent further explosions, officials decided to vent several of the cars carrying these materials, namely vinyl chloride. While this prevented the explosions as expected, it also released a toxic plume of smoke into the air. Vinyl chloride is a manmade chemical used to manufacture polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other plastic products and is linked to several adverse health effects, including several cancers.

Vinyl chloride is a known carcinogen linked to an increased risk of cancers such as:

  • Hepatocellular carcinoma (primary liver cancer)
  • Hepatic angiosarcoma (a rare form of liver cancer)
  • Brain cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Lymphoma
  • Leukemia

The burning of vinyl chloride, which occurred onsite at both the 1982 Livingston derailment and the 2023 East Palestine derailment, releases hydrogen chloride, which is known to cause irritation to the skin, nose, eyes, and throat according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Immediate Health Effects of Exposure to the Train’s Chemicals

While there were no immediate injuries or deaths reported, the effects of the hazardous materials on the surrounding area and its inhabitants have been immeasurable. Not only are the flora and fauna affected – the Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported that they could attribute the deaths of more than 43,000 aquatic animals to the chemicals spilled in the accident – but residents of East Palestine and nearby towns have been increasingly diagnosed with chemical bronchitis and other ailments.

The main concern is the release of vinyl chloride, the same chemical that was spilled in the 1982 Livingston derailment. Residents of East Palestine are concerned for the quality of their water, soil, and air in the wake of the accident, although so far the EPA has deemed levels to be safe. However, as more time goes on, that risk may increase as the chemicals spread from the crash site.

How Common Are Train Derailments?

Train derailments are nothing new, nor are they rare. In 2022, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) reported 1,044 train derailments last year, or approximately 3 derailments per day. The Ohio derailment is just one of many that have occurred since the beginning of 2023 – in fact, it wasn’t even the first derailment in Ohio this year. One other occurred when an empty Ohio Central Railroad train slid off the tracks between Trinway and Adam’s Mill.

While train derailments are incredibly common, the East Palestine disaster stands out due to the hazardous materials on board. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 110 train derailments occurred between 2015 and 2022 that resulted in the release of hazardous chemicals. That accounts for approximately 1% of train derailments in that period. In fact, the head of the Association of American Railroads trade group claimed that 99.9 percent of all hazardous materials reach their destinations safely.

What Are the Safety Requirements for Trains Carrying Hazardous Materials?

With trains carrying more than two million carloads of hazardous materials each year, the safety of this transportation is of the utmost importance. Accidents like the derailment that occurred in East Palestine only further highlight the need for stringent regulations.

According to the Association of American Railroads, freight railroads are subject to rigorous oversight by agencies such as:

  • Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)
  • Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)
  • Department of Homeland Security

In order to properly transport hazardous materials, real customers are required to properly disclose and label all shipments on a car-by-car basis and use the appropriate cars for each chemical. The labeling allows for easy identification and response in the event of an accident, and the proper storage helps to mitigate any damage.

Which Agencies Are Involved in the Investigation of the Ohio Train Derailment?

The NTSB is largely responsible for investigating the cause of the derailment as well as taking into account any emergency response that is necessary. The EPA, on the other hand, is investigating the environmental issues associated with the wreck, including air monitoring, water quality testing, and environmental remediation.

Aside from the NTSB and EPA, several parties are involved in the investigation and cleanup efforts in the wake of the derailment in East Palestine.

These parties include:

  • U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
  • U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration
  • Ohio State Highway Patrol
  • The Village of East Palestine
  • Norfolk Southern Railway
  • Trinity Industries Leasing Company
  • GATX Corporation
  • Brotherhood of Railway Carmen
  • International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers
  • Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen

Incidents After the Ohio Train Derailment: The Rookwood Derailment of 2023

Just over two months after the East Palestine train derailment, on the morning of Saturday, April 15th, another freight train derailed just north of Rookwood, Maine. While the cars that derailed were not carrying hazardous materials, three locomotives and four of the six derailed cars started to burn and caused a forest fire. Three railway workers were transported to local hospitals for care after narrowly escaping one of the damaged locomotives. Fortunately, the freight cars carrying flammable wire, ethanol, and pentamethylheptane escaped the fire, but in the days after the crash, diesel fuel was found to be leaking into nearby waterways such as Brassua Lake. Residents of nearby towns were advised to stay away from the crash site, but have not been issued any shelter-in-place or evacuation orders since the incident.

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