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We Have Learned Nothing in the Year Since East Palestine

Headaches, coughs, and questions linger.

East Palestine, Ohio.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

This time last year, the 151 cars of Norfolk Southern train 32N were still rolling along somewhere between Madison, Illinois, and Ohio’s eastern border. The train had suffered a brief breakdown on its northeast journey to Toledo, where a new crew came on before the double locomotives turned southeast, following the shore of Lake Erie into Cleveland, a metropolitan area of 2.18 million residents. It’d have been an irritating train to encounter at a railroad crossing: It stretched almost two miles long.

32N also weighed 18,000 tons, and in its 20 hazardous material tank cars, it carried some 700,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, which had originated in a chemical plant outside of Houston — a crucial hub in the American plastics machine, booming thanks to cheap shale gas. Some rail workers reportedly referred to the train as “32 Nasty,” due to its reputation for being difficult to handle.

On February 3, 2023, around 8:12 p.m., 32N passed a metal processing plant in Salem, Ohio, where surveillance footage showed flames and sparks coming from the wheels of one of the cars. About half an hour later, 38 of its cars derailed due to an overheated wheel bearing that engineers detected only after it was too late to stop the rupture. Eleven of the derailed cars carried hazardous materials, which immediately began leaking into the soil, nearby water, and air. The train came to rest a little less than 200 miles away from its final destination, abruptly terminating in a burst of flames in East Palestine, Ohio, population 4,700.

A year on, what we still don’t know about the Norfolk Southern derailment is almost as shocking as what we do. For all the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was on site almost immediately after the accident, there are glaring pieces of information missing: the concentration of the chemicals locals were exposed to; how much of the surrounding environment is still polluted; and what health issues could still arise. Even “the plan for documenting and responding to long-term health effects experienced by residents is still being ironed out,” Bloombergreports, 364 days later.

Days after the initial derailment and the town’s first round of evacuation orders, emergency responders and Norfolk Southern made the decision to vent and then ignite the train’s remaining vinyl chloride days later, reportedly to prevent an explosion. This sent an alarming black plume into the sky over the town. Locals subsequently reported headaches, nausea, rashes, and coughs, among other ailments; some said they saw animals get sick or die. “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open,” one hazardous materials expert toldThe Associated Press in the aftermath.

Former President Donald Trump visited three weeks after the derailment to hand out Trump-branded water bottles and tell the residents, “You are not forgotten.” Marianne Williamson, who is mounting a longshot challenge to President Joe Biden in the 2024 Democratic primary, recalled to Heatmap last summer that on her own visit after the disaster, “I saw the frustration, the bitterness, the despair, and in some cases, the hopelessness of people who had been not only neglected, abandoned, abused, and traumatized by Norfolk Southern, but had been re-traumatized by the neglect of their state and federal government.” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the day after Trump; Biden is expected to make his first visit to the disaster zone this month.

Despite bipartisan hand-wringing, little has been done to prevent another disaster. A rail safety bill that would enhance safety protocols for trains carrying hazardous materials sponsored by Ohio’s Senators, Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown and its Republican JD Vance, has yet to go to the floor. Experts don’t believe it will get the nine necessary Republican votes to advance, partly because Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell opposes it.

Yet Toxic-Free Future reports that some 3 million people live along vinyl chloride transportation routes between the plants in Texas and the plastic factories in New Jersey, and train derailments have been on the rise.

Politicians and pundits will mark Saturday’s derailment with their cases and appeals for this and that. But locals are uncomfortably aware that it will be years more before they know what their lingering coughs and headaches mean — for them, for their children, and everything else attempting to live in their town. Whatever eventually becomes clear may be a help to others down the line, but will likely come too late for East Palestine.

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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