Disregarding safety measures can have serious consequences for individuals, communities, and the environment. Safety measures are put in place to protect people from harm, prevent accidents, and reduce risks. When the implemented safety measures are ignored, catastrophes occur, such as in the case of the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment.
The train, owned by the Norfolk Southern Company, derailed on February 3, 2023. The train carried hazardous materials and when it derailed, it resulted in the contamination of the local water supply with the toxic chemicals, benzene, and toluene. Authorities are still unsure about the cause of the disaster, but they assume it was caused by a technical problem with a rail car axle. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the footage appears to show a wheel bearing overheating moments before the disaster.
The accident has raised concerns about the health and environmental impacts of the spill, and it also raised questions about the safety measures that were disregarded prior to the incident. As a result of the incident, approximately 5000 people were evacuated, prompting a state of emergency declaration. Norfolk Southern has stated that it is working with local and state officials to address the situation and mitigate any potential environmental impacts. The spill has raised concerns about the long-term health effects on the affected population. Benzene and toluene are known carcinogens, and exposure to these chemicals can increase the risk of developing cancer and other health problems. The contamination has also had a significant impact on the local community. Schools and businesses in the affected area have been closed, and residents have been advised to avoid using tap water for drinking, cooking, or bathing purposes.
Although there were no casualties, the accident serves as a wake-up call to the potential for more deadly freight train derailments. The catastrophe is the result of ineffective regulation and a largely self-monitoring industry that has cut the nation's rail workforce to the bone in recent years as it prioritizes record profits over safety. In the United States, approximately 4.5 million tons of toxic chemicals are shipped by rail each year and an average of 12.000 rail cars carrying hazardous materials pass through towns and cities each day. This issue is not exclusive to the United States, as the disregarding of safety measures in other areas of the world has been noticed as well.
The derailment and its aftermath have also intensified discussions among rail workers over the conditions they face, as rail bosses are determined to prioritize costs over safety. It seems that for companies such as Norfolk Southern, it is more profitable to clean up a disaster rather than prevent one. This practice in which profits are the priority puts communities such as East Palestine at risk of being struck by a man-made disaster that could be prevented. In a drive to boost profits, trains have gotten longer, but the workforce supporting them has gotten smaller. Norfolk Southern announced in 2021 that they had raised average train weight by 21% and length by 20% during a three-year period. Throughout the last decade, there has been an increase in the number of train derailments. Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern reduced its staff by 40%, from 30,456 to 18,100 employees, which has made it impossible to properly inspect equipment to ensure its safety.
The US Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for protecting human health and the environment, issued an order against Norfolk Southern as a result of the company’s negligence. The company must pay for the clean-up of the train wreck and if they don’t comply, the agency will perform the work itself and seek triple damages from the company. Up to this day, crews are still cleaning up contaminated soil and liquids and they have continued to test the water, air, and earth for toxins.
In conclusion, the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio has resulted in a significant environmental and public health concern. While clean-up efforts are underway, the long-term effects of the contamination remain unclear. This incident serves as a reminder of the importance of prioritizing safety in transportation and infrastructure planning to prevent future accidents and protect public health and the environment.