Let’s Talk: The Ohio Environmental Crisis 

 By: Nicole Chedraoui 

You know how everyone jokes around when something really bad happens and says, “only in Ohio!” In the book of “Ohio horrors,” this one may take the cake…

What the heck happened in Ohio??

Our story begins on a dark and gloomy night in the brisk town of East Palestine, Ohio– a small village of 4,700 residents located on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. It was around 9pm when disaster would strike: a train would be derailed. 

I don’t know about you, but train derailment is something straight out of my nightmares; in fact, every time I cross the Heritage train tracks, I shiver at the possibility of such a disaster striking. So you can imagine the horror that the 150 cars  enroute from Illinois to Pennsylvania experienced when a 38 car and train derailment fire turned catastrophic. 

It was soon after the initial impact of the 38 car collision  that an additional 12 surrounding cars would begin to feel the impacts as well, causing a sea of heart-stopping damage. It’s probably impossible to imagine a scenario more chaotic and horrifying than this, but I’m here to tell you (that oh my Jesus Pete), it gets SO much worse. 

In typical Ohio style, this couldn’t be just any ordinary disaster, no, this was a trainwreck on TOP of a trainwreck. The train, which was being operated by Norfolk Southern, had apparently been carrying chemicals and COMBUSTIBLE hazardous materials. I’m being so for real. Most notably, a gas called vinyl chloride was being transported. Vinyl chloride is a toxic FLAMMABLE gas. It’s safe to say the explosion was seen all over town, and unapologetic flames would lick the air for a frightening amount of time. 

Residents all around the Ohio-Pennsylvania border were ordered to evacuate as Governor of Ohio–Mark DeWine–raised his concern over a possible explosion. 

Obviously, another explosion would have been horrendous and most likely deadly, so now was the time for these local politicians and first responders to put their heads together and problem solve. 

However, in their efforts to not escalate the situation any more, they did the literal last thing that should ever be done (literally ever). They decided to do a “controlled” BURN of the toxic, carcinogenic chemicals. Yes, they had 14 trucks containing hundreds of thousands of gallons of vinyl chloride–a brain, lung, blood, and liver carcinogen–and knowingly released it into the air. 

Of course this isn’t some dystopian movie. The residents of the town were obviously evacuated well before the controlled burning took place, but it’s safe to say, this decision was not only harmfully reckless to human life, it was detrimental to the environment. 

Upon residents returning to their homes in East Palestine, it was reported the air was coated in a thick foggy haze of pungent smelling chlorine, and it wouldn’t be long before people spreading all around the town began complaining of feeling sick. 

As headaches, dizziness, and general nasal irritation were increasingly reported within a 40-mile radius of the incident, Dr. Vanderhoff of the Ohio Department of Health continued to reassure residents that the air samples did not indicate any life threatening findings, and at most, the irritation the residents felt may just be the residual dispensing of hydrogen chloride. However, it’s safe to say most people were not happy with this answer, especially considering they were now exposed to carcinogenic chemicals that could very well have long term implications on their wellbeing.

It Actually Gets Worse 

It shouldn’t come as a shock to many that disposing of this level of carcinogenic chemicals into the air and water would lead to dire consequences, but when broken down, I’m sorry to say that our story just gets scarier. After reports of 3,500 local fish dying just the first night after the burn, it’s no secret that the impacts of this catastrophe weren’t just endangering people, they were plaguing the wildlife. Local farmers started to report the horror that ensued as they walked out to their barns only to discover a plethora of their animals dead,  Cows, chickens, horses, and even house pets have reportedly been passing away at alarming rates. The local fox population is seeing a severe decrease in their species, and it’s no secret that the Phosgene that was burned into the air served as a choking agent during the burning. I feel I should add (just for reader’s understanding) when vinyl chloride is burned, it transforms into a harmful substance, as previously mentioned, called phosgene. This chemical was commonly used in World War 1 as a toxic and fatal weapon, and any direct contact with this substance is proven to be corrosive. 

I know what you may be thinking, “Nicole, if it’s in the air… does that mean it’s in the water?” The answer to that is a terrifyingly resounding YES. The concern turns increasingly alarming when you further dissect just where the water contamination occurred, and where this water source may lead into. It has been absolutely confirmed that remnants of these hazardous chemicals were found in the Ohio river, and while those of you who may not live in Ohio are probably unbothered by this, you should probably start to get more bothered. The Ohio river connects to a plethora of additional rivers and basins; in fact, the water system is so connected that an additional 14 states are actually in a direct link to this chemical spill. That’s 5 million people. Not to sound depressing, but I feel that should be exceptionally horrifying and also most definitely making national news. While officials continue to claim that the water is safe to drink, Ohio residents everywhere have grown a little leary of their water, you know, considering the videos circulating around the internet of people’s coffee sizzling like a high school chemistry class. It’s safe to say being sent off with a measly boil warning for a few days was not an adequate enough response to this national disaster. Negligence over human health, wildlife health, and air quality aside, the long term concern over how this event will indefinitely impact our groundwater and water supply  is enough to be concerned about. 

The next time you think “the government would never do that,” yes, they would. 

As I write this article approximately one week after the incident, I can say that we are looking at only 1 lawsuit filed so far against rail operator Norfolk Southern, but I honestly believe that it’s not going to end here. The lawsuit alleges negligence by the company and exposure to toxic substances as a result.Well, YEAH, DUH! Unsurprisingly, Norfolk Southern has chosen to not comment on the suit against them, and the whole entire event seems to be going down in history as the largest environmental disaster our nation has ever seen. Concerned scientists and reporters alike are calling it a “mini Chernobyl” and claiming that Norfolk Southern could be the catalyst to a full on catastrophe. 

The response to such a horrifying series of events was not only entirely concerning, it also demonstrated a gross inadequacy from both Norfolk Southern and the government in their inability to respond to an environmental crisis. I mean, really, was there seriously no other solution to avoiding a “potential” explosion? Did they really have no higher-level problem solving than purposefully endangering millions of lives, the environment, and wildlife? Not to sound like a conspiracist, but I think the government knew EXACTLY what they were doing when administering this “controlled burn.” The government was once again headstrong in purposefully harming those they govern. 

This decision was rash. 

These outcomes were avoidable. 

East Palestine deserves justice. 
Link to donate and learn more about how you can help: https://www.gofundme.com/c/act/ohio-train-help


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