By: Sukhmani Singh
On February 3rd, 2023, a Norfolk Southern Railway train carrying hazardous materials traveling from Madison, Illinois to Conway, Pennsylvania derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Residents were ordered to evacuate due to a threat of possible explosion. Since then, residents have been left with more questions and no answers.
East Palestine is a small rural community in northeastern Ohio. 5,000 residents live on less than 3 square miles of land. The average income is forty thousand dollars, and the employment rate sits at five percent. See http://eastpalestine-oh.gov/statistics/. After the train derailed, officials decided to conduct a controlled burn of the train cars in order to prevent a possible explosion which would have sent shrapnel into the resident areas. But what residents were not told at the time was by administering a controlled burn of the toxins, vinyl chloride would be released. Vinyl chloride is a known cancer-causing compound and when burned it creates phosgene gas, a chemical warfare agent.
Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, has yet to visit the site of the disaster and has barely addressed the situation. It took almost two weeks before Buttigieg commented publicly on the matter. Buttigieg later tweeted that some of the underlying issues actually originated within the Trump Administration, “We’re constrained by law on some areas of rail regulation (like the braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration in 2018 because of a law passed by Congress in 2015, but we are using the powers we do have to keep people safe.” See https://twitter.com/SecretaryPete/status/1625628605861462016. Meanwhile, Michael Regan, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, was taking a trip in Ghana and Sierra Leone during the disaster and did not make it to East Palestine until February 15th, a full twelve days after the train derailed.
Officials continue to tout the narrative that everything is okay, and there is no contamination to the water or air. However, residents continue report thousands of dead fish washing up, trouble breathing, and murky water. Residents of East Palestine feel ignored. A train full of toxins were just burned in their communities and officials want them to rest easy as if everything is okay? Residents of East Palestine have been left with no answers as to why this happened in the first place and media outlets and federal officials have been quick to assure them nothing is amiss in their town. Unfortunately, this sort of response is nothing new. Time and time again residents from low-income rural communities who face environmental disaster are often ignored. East Palestine is no stranger to environmental justice violations either. For years, the town has faced major threats to adequate clean drinking water and in late 2022 even signed onto a campaign called “Imagine a Day Without Water” which asked Americans to stand with those who lacked adequate drinking water, sanitation, or both. See https://time.com/6255560/water-sanitation-crisis-ohio-train-derailment/. So even when residents are reassured that it is safe to return and they can drink the water, it is no surprise that East Palestine residents are having a hard time trusting officials. When so many years go by being ignored and treated like second class citizens, trusting your government in times of crises becomes almost impossible.
Residents of East Palestine have begun pursuing legal avenues to hold Norfolk Southern accountable. In a class action filed on Wednesday in U.S. District court, plaintiffs allege that the railroad dumped more than 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride into the environment during the incident. See https://www.wfmj.com/story/48393829/sixth-lawsuit-claims-controlled-chemical-release-worsened-east-palestine-situation. As a result, the burning of the chemicals subjected residents to chemicals banned by the Geneva Conventions. See https://plus.lexis.com/newsstand#/law360/article/1577092?crid=19473ac2-cb6a-4e5d-b74c-0590b1e542a9. According to the complaint, “instead of committing to be a responsible steward, and accounting for the failures on top of failures that led Norfolk Southern to such an enormous discharge of DNA-mutating chemicals, Norfolk Southern decided that it would continue its reckless and willful disregard for human life, and instead turn the vinyl chloride lagoon it created into a million-pound chemical burn pit.” Id. Plaintiffs are seeking damages, medical monitoring, attorney fees and interest. Id. According to a statement by the EPA, Norfolk Southern is likely also liable for cleanup costs under the federal Superfund program. See https://response.epa.gov/sites/15933/files/Norfolk%20Southern%20East%20Palestine%20Train%20Derailment%20General%20Notice%20Letter%202.10.2023.pdf.
As residents of East Palestine continue to deal with the fallout of this disaster, we must be sure to learn lessons from this event. What preventative measures can company like Norfolk Southern and agencies like the EPA take in the future to ensure this doesn’t happen again. We must also ask what can be done to bridge the communication gap between officials and residents who are scared for their lives. The situation facing East Palestine right now is an environmental justice issue that requires the utmost amount of scrutiny and consideration.
Sukhmani graduated from Arizona State University with a BA in Political Science and a BA in Sustainability. She is now a 2L at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Her legal interests are rooted in the intersection between sustainability and social justice including, access to clean affordable energy and advocating for the rights of local urban farmers. Outside of law school, Sukhmani enjoys exploring rural Arizona and buying books she will never read.