Canary in the Coal Mine:
How Eastern Ohio was nuked to clear a railroad
Years ago, coal miners were known to carry birds in cages down into the mineshafts with them. Miles beneath the earth, miners could encounter any number of odorless gases that they may not notice until it was too late. The birds provided an early warning for the miners to escape to safety and fresh air. It was not the singing of the birds that provided warning, but rather their dead silence. If one was found to be dead in its cage, miners knew to run for safety. It was known that what was immediately deadly to the bird would eventually become just as deadly to a man.
On Friday, February 3, a Norfolk Southern train traveling across Ohio into Pennsylvania derailed carrying tankers full of hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride. It was argued that during the derailment, several of the tankers began heating up and there was potential for a cataclysmic explosion that would have sent flaming debris and aerosolized chemicals into the air across multiple counties and states. In response, emergency management teams decided to blow a hole in several of the tankers using thermite, drain the carcinogenic chemicals into a ditch and light them on fire, sending a toxic cloud of carcinogenic chemicals into the air and across multiple counties and states.
If you are thinking to yourself that the plan to fix the problem sounds incredibly similar to the problem they started with, you are not alone. As with any case of colossal screw-ups, now that the people in charge have all smiled for the cameras and patted themselves on the back, residents are left to deal with the aftermath.
On Monday evening, almost immediately after the EPA and the experts from Norfolk Southern decreed the operation a success, animals began dying both in the immediate area of the burn and miles far outside what the EPA considered the hazardous evacuation zone. As winds from 5:00 p.m. onwards began blowing northwest, meteorologists noticed massive spikes on the EPA PM2.5 particulate pollution monitor in Youngstown by 10:00 p.m., which continued into Warren and led to a shelter in place recommendation across Mahoning county. Fish in Rivers surrounding East Palestine began floating belly up as reports began coming in that foxes, chicken, cows and dogs stepped outside and immediately keeled over. The plume was tracked moving further outside the one-mile evacuation zone and was lost around midnight. Despite these reports of animals dying and people experiencing symptoms of nausea, eye irritation and dizziness, the EPA continued to reassure everyone that the situation was being “extensively monitored” and everything was safe.
As of this writing, a manifest has recently been released by Norfolk Southern, illustrating a number of chemicals of concern. Those listed on the manifest of particular interest are benzene residue, vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol, monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and Isobutylene. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, five railcars contained in total around 200,000 lb. of vinyl chloride and which was lit aflame during the controlled burn off. Upon combustion, vinyl chloride burns into phosgene gas. The combustion of the various products from vinyl chloride monomer gave 27,000 ppm HCl, 58,100 ppm CO2, 9500 ppm CO and 40 ppm phosgene. This means about 27,000 lb. HCl and 40 lb. phosgene were pumped into the troposphere. A source has informed The Heartland Beat that the exposure toxicity limit for humans for phosgene is around 0.3 ppm depending on duration. Residents in the area took video monitoring the toxic plumes hanging just above telephone poles as it floated on prevailing winds moving immediately east through Darlington and then northwest through the night. These toxic plumbs have mostly settled now, falling into the ground and entering into waterways, streams and aquifers. A large portion of the initial leak from the derailment actually spilled into the Ohio River, which feeds water supply for multiple major municipalities across several states. The EPA has promised residents and citizens in and around the area that extensive monitoring has been conducted with air and water samples. Some results of those tests have been posted and the results were not promising. Testing is mostly being conducted within the one-mile radius of the crash site, with most testing being conducted upwind, instead of downwind. Results from the report indicate samples were nine times higher than the “normal” levels of acrolein, two times above normal levels of benzene, 23 times above the normal levels of ethylbenzene. Test results also showed they were not even looking for one of the most lethal compounds in mix, phosgene. The companies involved in the testing raise additional concerns.
“Tetra Tech (and their subcontractors) are working for U.S. EPA under the Superfund Technical Assessment and Response Team (START) contract. They are providing air monitoring and sampling assistance to EPA. CTEH is a contractor that was hired by Norfolk Southern to conduct air monitoring and to provide toxilogical support to them.” Rachel Bassler, U.S. EPA Public Information Officer said.
One company involved is Tetra Tech, a company previously caught falsifying data points regarding a radiological survey at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Another company involved in the operation is CTEH, an environmental consulting firm tasked with handling questions and briefing officials, that has a similar record of dishonesty regarding chemical spills. Other companies reportedly involved in testing include EnviroScience, which has been collecting samples in the East Palestine Area. Reports have come in of residents and reporters being threatened for documenting in the general area where EnviroScience is posted. Some threatened residents with arrest by the National Guard for photographing in the collection site areas. It should be noted the National Guard lacks authority to arrest citizens in public spaces and EnviroScience workers have no control over a government branch of servicemembers.
If you find yourself questioning whether the EPA is being honest with residents who are now falling sick from exposure, you are probably not alone. The damage from this controlled operation is cataclysmic. As the chemical plumes settle, the food and water supply for a large portion of the state will be contaminated in ways it will not soon recover from. The true extent of the damage has yet to be realized. There is no investigation underway to actually test or look at food, water or animal life outside the immediate evacuation zone beyond that of independent citizens with a healthy distrust of criminal enterprises. The results of their inquiries are terrifying.
It would be low hanging fruit in this catastrophe to point the finger at the Biden administration and congress for shutting down the recent attempts at a railroad strike. When workers across the country threatened to strike in response to unsafe working conditions, including extended hours, understaffing and lack of safety precautions from dilapidated infrastructure and broken and dangerous safety mechanisms, the government responded with threatening jailtime. In this incident, Norfolk Southern may have more direct culpability. The striking workers nationally sought to rectify a number of issues directly pertaining to the derailment in East Palestine, including traveling with extended trains upwards of 150 cars in length. Separately, legislation had also been proposed targeting the archaic breaking systems which might have prevented the East Palestine Derailment. Additionally, Norfolk Southern spent millions in lobbying campaigns to GOP candidates to shut down legislation that would have put stricter rules on the transportation of hazardous chemicals, mandated more staffing and forced an upgrade to modern braking systems which could have improved braking times. In the case of East Palestine, the several mile-long train was staffed by three workers in total.
Reports indicate that the main culprit of the accident was a malfunctioning wheel axle that began heating up and flaming. The train was seen with wheels on fire in Salem, OH at the Freshmark Meat Processing plant. At this juncture, hotbox sensors on the track should have sent an error message to rail workers to halt the train immediately as any wheel hot enough to show as flaming on video would have been enough to signal the warning lights inside the vehicle. Independent investigation of the hotbox sensors on the track have indicated they appear in working order. For reasons not yet known, the train continued an additional 20 miles as the axle melted into the track and sent the miles-long train filled with toxic carcinogenic chemicals off the rails.
Naturally, as every part of this disaster could have been avoided by Norfolk Southern, they have been working diligently to
rectify the loss to residents’ health and livelihood clear the tracks to ensure commerce continues as planned and no independent investigation can be held on the remains. No more than 44 minutes after the evacuation order was lifted, did the first commercial train pass down the tracks. Whether or not a thorough investigation will be seen and accountability placed on those responsible may depend largely, as usual, on whether the culprits are paid up with the right people. In this case, the governor’s office may be a good starting point.
The EPA and Governor have given press conferences assuring the populace that the danger is passed, despite people still lodging complaints of eye irritation, nausea, headaches and despite dead fish still being pulled up from the rivers. Questions still remain on the minds of residents near and far from the accident. The Heartland Beat has attempted to reach out to Charles Rodriguez, the US EPA representative, regarding their operations. Inquiry was made pertaining to if there was any plan to syphon out quantities of the toxic chemicals prior to the controlled burn. According to the timeline, there was a several day window between Friday when the train derailed, and Sunday when Governor DeWine issued the one-mile wide evacuation order in which some sort of alternate plan could have been attempted if able. The EPA responded stating questions pertaining to that plan be directed to Norfolk Southern. Norfolk Southern had not responded to inquiry as of the writing of this article.
Those who live in the areas affected by this extensive contamination will need to make a choice to either abandon their homes for health and safety or remain and face grave outcomes. Those who are choosing to reside should look into independent water testing for their well systems that will specifically look at the chemicals mentioned in the cargo manifest as well as phosgene and hydrochloric acid.
Residents across the state may want to take a harder look at the food they are purchasing and begin tracking the source of their eggs, meat and produce to ensure it has not originated in the zones near the contamination. This area includes Eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, areas fed by the Ohio river, Mahoning County and the northwest of Pennsylvania. We are entering a new frontier of public-private partnerships where corporations will act with destructive impunity and the government will shield them from public scrutiny. We, like the miners of old, are navigating into deep and dark places as a nation and state. Those searching for warning signs need only look at the legion of dead around East Palestine and listen to the deafening silence of their signal.
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