EPA could protect communities from disasters like Ohio train wreck

Why are there so many toxic chemicals on trains? How can we reduce the risk of toxic spills?

Toxic threats

Carol Highsmith | CC-BY-2.0
Freight train traveling across the U.S.

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Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

When approximately 50 cars from a Norfolk Southern train traveling from Illinois to Pennsylvania derailed on February 3rd in East Palestine, Ohio, it ignited a massive fireball that required people within one mile to evacuate. Firefighters and hazmat crews from three states responded, but had to withdraw from the fire due to concerns about air quality.

Multiple explosions took place at the site of the accident overnight. Ensuing fires created an ongoing orange glow and clouds of dark smoke that were visible on meteorologists’ weather radar in Pittsburgh, some 50 miles away. Residents complained about the smoke burning their eyes and throats. Meanwhile, evacuated residents had to stay away for five days while the fire burned down.

Now, nearly two weeks after the incident, residents in East Palestine, nearby communities in Pennsylvania, and the Pittsburgh metropolitan area are rightfully concerned about how the vinyl chloride (which is linked to cancer) and other chemicals that potentially went up in flames may adversely impact their health and environment.

An incident such as this is not surprising. In 2015, the statewide citizen-based environmental non-profit group PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center released a study entitled, “Danger Around the Bend: the threat of oil trains in Pennsylvania,” which showed the risk that trains carrying explosive and toxic materials may pose to nearby communities in case of an accident. And in 2019, PIRG published a report, “Accidents Waiting to Happen,” which identified trains carrying oil and other pollutants as a source of toxic threats to drinking water and waterways.

Many solutions have been proposed that would reduce the risk and impact of accidents like this, from improving safety standards to updating ailing rail infrastructure. But accidents will still inevitably happen. The surest way to prevent these catastrophes is to stop using–and therefore transporting–such enormous quantities of toxic chemicals in the first place.

It’s tempting to give the use of these chemicals the benefit of the doubt – surely the only reason we use them is because the benefits outweigh the costs, and we simply need them to maintain an acceptable standard of living. But in reality, it is possible to dramatically reduce the use of toxic chemicals. PIRG and the Center for American Progress produced a report in 2006 that found that, “some 284 facilities in 47 states have dramatically reduced the danger of a chemical release into nearby communities by switching to less acutely hazardous processes or chemicals or moving to safer locations.”

When inherently safer technology is available, companies should be shifting to it as quickly as possible to prevent and mitigate the impacts of disasters like the one in East Palestine, Ohio. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the opportunity to make that happen. The agency is currently considering a proposed Chemical Accident Prevention rule, which aims to address deficiencies that have left workers and communities vulnerable when accidents like this happen. Under current rules, chemical carriers including rail cars and tanker trucks are exempt from EPA’s accident prevention programs. PIRG, along with more than 100 other organizations, are calling on the EPA to close this loophole and require the use of inherently safer technology wherever possible as part of this rule.


Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG