Ohio’s Train Derailment Crisis, Explained

Norfolk Southern Railroad and officials who responded face intense scrutiny.

By Hudson Crozier

In a nutshell: A train carrying thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3 after an axle caught on fire. Due to the risk of a massive explosion, the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania ordered an evacuation of the surrounding area. Officials then allowed the railroad company Norfolk Southern to conduct a “controlled release” of the chemicals, releasing them into the environment and creating a fire that burned for days.

The impact: Although residents have been allowed to go back to their homes, some have reported feeling sick and getting headaches. Animals have fallen sick and died, and spillage of the chemicals has killed an estimated 3,500 fish. The effects of potential water pollution could be massive as the Ohio River supplies drinking water to over 5 million people across six states. Multiple states are now examining their water supply.

What could have caused the crash? Federal officials are still investigating the cause and warn that Norfolk Southern could be held financially responsible. Some analysts are pointing to the fact that Norfolk has spent years successfully lobbying for fewer safety regulations for trains that carry hazardous materials, including requirements for stronger brake systems. Notably, the train in Ohio derailed because the emergency brake failed to stop the train fast enough after the axle malfunctioned. Local residents and business owners have also sued the company for alleged negligence.

What about the government’s response? Given the effects of the “controlled release” of the chemicals, many feel that there must have been a safer way for officials to handle the problem. To make matters worse, a local reporter was arrested last Wednesday for alleged trespassing when he tried to broadcast Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s press conference on the crisis. Although the governor’s office expressed disapproval of the arrest, the incident has further damaged the public’s trust.

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