East Palestine: “We Basically Nuked a Town with Chemicals So We Could Get a Railroad Open”

Steven L. Robinson

East Palestine: “We Basically Nuked a Town with Chemicals So We Could Get a Railroad Open”


Companies should never again be allowed to do what Norfolk Southern did to this Ohio community.


By Tish O'Dell and Chad Nicholson/In These Times/March 22, 2023


n the immediate aftermath of Norfolk Southern’s train derailment in East Palestine in early February, reporters, first responders and officials seemed confused about exactly what chemicals were even in the train’s burning cars. Yet, right on cue, despite not knowing what effects the various chemicals could have within an explosive situation, the EPA reported that the surrounding air and water was safe to breathe and drink. 


As more reports trickled out, we learned the train cars were carrying at least five toxic chemicals: vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene. According to government and scientific data, exposure to these chemicals can cause multiple forms of cancer and other serious health issues. But Norfolk Southern failed to initially disclose those chemicals as highly hazardous, and first responders — not to mention the public — had little idea what they were dealing with. 


Three days after the derailment, on Feb. 6, we watched as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, in consultation with Norfolk Southern representatives, greenlighted a plan to blow holes in five of the cars containing toxic chemicals, which would lead to a ​“controlled release,” and residents in nearby communities were ordered to evacuate. This decision to release and burn off the chemicals was defended by public officials and Norfolk Southern as the ​“safest way” to handle the situation. The resulting fire’s black plume of smoke, ash and debris, created a toxic pall that hung over the communities for days. EPA tests found the air contaminated with phosgene, hydrogen chloride, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and particulate matter.


By Feb. 7, according to a Norfolk Southern service alert, trains were running through East Palestine again. As thousands of dead fish floated in local waterways, as nearby residents were reporting sickness and dying pets, as untold long-term health and environmental problems lurked in the hazy future, the railroad chugged back to business as usual.


“We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open,” said hazardous materials expert and retired Youngstown, Ohio Fire Chief Sil Caggiano.