Rail Accident Dubbed ‘Ohio’s Chernobyl’ Creates New Headaches for Mayor Pete

Despite assurances that the area is safe, locals are sharing reports of sickened pets, dead livestock and fish, and health problems following the accident.

AP/Gene J. Puskar
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains. AP/Gene J. Puskar

A cataclysmic train derailment more than 10 days ago in eastern Ohio that sent plumes of toxic smoke across two states and chemicals into nearby waterways has panicked area residents and created a new headache for President Biden’s embattled transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg. 

While the rest of the nation obsesses about unidentified flying objects and Rihanna’s latest pregnancy, residents of East Palestine, Ohio, and other nearby towns have had their lives upended by the incident, which is being described in some circles as “Ohio’s Chernobyl.”

Despite assurances from local, state, and federal officials that the crash site is under control and the area is safe, locals are sharing reports on social media of sickened pets, dead livestock and fish, and health problems, prompting wild speculation about the short- and long-term effects of the accident and subsequent release of toxic chemicals.

Criticism about the mawkish federal response to the crisis is coming from both sides of the political spectrum. An environmental activist, Erin Brockovich, said she has received “hundreds” of emails from area residents who are afraid and in the dark about the accident and its aftermath. “People are scared and confused on the ground,” she tweeted Monday. “We can be honest about this and demand better. We can also demand clear and honest communication from the government.”

In a statement criticized as too little and too late, Ohio’s newest senator, J.D. Vance, said Monday he was “horrified” by the crash and the images of miles-long clouds of black soot that blanketed the area for days.

“This is a complex environmental disaster with impacts that may be difficult to assess in the short term,” Mr. Vance said. “Long-term study will be imperative. As will long-term commitment to remediation by Norfolk Southern for the property damaged, the wildlife disrupted, and the community scarred by this accident.”

About 50 of the train’s 150 cars, some of them carrying toxic combustible chemicals such as vinyl chloride, went off the tracks at East Palestine on February 3, resulting in a fire that was visible for miles. Nearby residents were ordered to evacuate, and authorities were forced to carry out a controlled detonation in order to prevent further explosions. Authorities said the black smoke emitted into the surrounding skies during the operation released both phosgene, a gas used on battlefields during World War I, and hydrogen chloride, which contributes to acid rain. 

The ecological fallout from the accident is being assessed, but authorities from both state and federal agencies have assured area residents — most of whom have returned home since — that neither the water supplies nor local air quality has been compromised, even though a number of chemicals were “known to have been and continue to be” released to the air, surface soil, and surface waters in the region. No one died or was injured in the accident.

Despite online hyperventilating about slow responses to the accident and lack of transparency from authorities, officials from both state and federal agencies have been on the ground since the accident and remained active Tuesday, taking air and water samples in the area. Norfolk Southern was offering displaced residents who were fearful of returning home money to pay hotel bills. Lawsuits against the company have already been filed.

Much of the ire over the accident has been directed at Mr. Buttigieg, whose remit as transportation secretary includes the nation’s rail networks. His silence in the days following the accident — including during a public appearance Monday at a National Association of Counties meeting at Washington during which he bragged about the administration’s $1.2 trillion 2021 infrastructure bill — did not go unnoticed, and Republicans in Congress were quick to capitalize on the outrage.

“Secretary Buttigieg laughing about Chinese spy balloons, while ignoring the Ohio train derailment, shows you how out of touch Democrats are,” the congressman representing Ohio’s 4th district, James Jordan, said.

After his appearance Monday evening, Mr. Buttigieg broke his silence. “I continue to be concerned about the impacts of the February 3 train derailment near East Palestine, Ohio, and the effects on families in the ten days since their lives were upended through no fault of their own,” he said. “It’s important that families have access to useful & accurate information.”

Since the Ohio incident, two other derailments have occurred in other parts of the country, one of them involving hazardous materials. On Monday, portions of a train went off the rails after it struck an 18-wheeler near Houston but none of the chemicals being transported leaked from their containers. Also on Monday, portions of a CSX train went off the tracks in upstate South Carolina.

The New York Sun

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