How dangerous train derailments affect communities like East Palestine, Ohio
Four months before a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals ran off the tracks in East Palestine, Ohio, creating a fiery explosion that burned for days, another cargo train operated by the same company derailed at an overpass roughly 140 miles away, in Sandusky, Ohio.
Fortunately, no one was injured as a result of the Sandusky derailment, which caused several rail cars to overturn and fall onto one of the main roads leading in and out of the city. The train had been hauling paraffin wax, some of which leaked from the derailed cars and into the city’s sewers, but it quickly hardened and reportedly posed no danger, according to city officials. Roughly 1,500 people were temporarily left without power after the crash, and Amtrak was forced to reroute many of its trains while railroad workers rushed to repair the line. Although the railroad was back up and running a week later, the underpass below remained closed to vehicles and pedestrians for months.
Days after the derailment, a prescient editorial in the Sandusky Register called for a thorough and transparent investigation into the derailment, arguing that “knowing full well the cause for what happened is the first, most important step in preventing it from happening again.”
“It could have been catastrophic, but, fortunately, the loss of life and serious injury both were avoided if only by luck,” the Register’s editorial board wrote. “But the next time, if something like this happens again, it could be more devastating, and someone could be hurt or killed. It seems like pure luck everyone escaped safely this time.”
Sandusky wasn’t the only city in Ohio to experience a train derailment in the months leading up to the crash in East Palestine. In early November, 22 cars of a 237-car train transporting rock salt and other materials derailed in Ravenna Township, a municipality of fewer than 9,000 people roughly 20 miles east of Akron. Days later, another train carrying garbage derailed between Toronto and Steubenville, dumping garbage into the Ohio River. Both of those trains also belonged to Norfolk Southern, one of the nation’s largest railroad companies.
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the Federal Railroad Administration, there were an average of 1,705 train derailments per year in the U.S. between 1990 and 2021. A number of derailments have already been reported in various other parts of the country this year, and even in the weeks since the crash in East Palestine.
For the most part, these incidents don’t result in death, injury or the release of hazardous substances into the nearby community — which is why they don’t usually receive more than a blurb in the local news.
But they nevertheless have a real impact on the often small, working-class communities where they tend to take place.
“This is the cost of doing business. It's just that these costs are being externalized mostly to these very small communities that are becoming victimized by these catastrophes,” said Anne Junod, a senior research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute who has studied catastrophic train derailments at Ohio State. “If you look at most of the derailments that have occurred in the last 15 years, because of this expansion in oil and gas development, these are happening in our smallest communities, for the most part, that are the least capitalized to do anything about it.”
In an interview with Yahoo News, Junod said she was much less surprised to learn of the derailment in East Palestine than she was by the amount of media attention it has received in the weeks since.
“Frankly, … this accident wasn't a surprise at all; these accidents have been happening for quite a while,” she said. “I'm glad to see it getting its due attention, because it's been affecting communities across North America for the better part of the last 15 years.”
But while national interest in East Palestine has cast a welcome spotlight on some of the very real issues that have long plagued communities along freight rail lines, Junod warned that unless the current attention leads to meaningful policy changes, these kinds of events are certain to continue.
“My hope is thin that we’ll see a lot of changes coming out of this, just because this is another in a long line of these derailments,” she said.
Despite the apparent frequency of derailments in general, trains are still considered the safest way to transport large volumes of chemicals over long distances, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. But while train wrecks involving hazardous materials are relatively uncommon, according to an analysis from USA Today, federal inspectors have flagged 36% more hazmat violations over the last five years than in the five years before that.
Rail companies in recent years have turned to Precision Scheduled Railroading, a system intended to maximize efficiency that results in longer, heavier trains. It has also resulted in a reduction in the number of workers, which railroad unions say has resulted in more cursory inspections and trains that are less safe.
There has also been a rollback on a new braking system. In 2015, the Obama administration instituted new rules on the transportation of crude oil, which were criticized for not being rigorous enough. Under former President Donald Trump, numerous regulations were rolled back, including one mandating the use of electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes, stating that it was too costly. The Associated Press found that Trump’s administration had miscalculated its estimates. Norfolk Southern said that it had “opposed additional speed limitations and requiring ECP brakes” in a 2015 lobbying disclosure.
As for potential changes that could reduce the number of derailments, Junod suggested updating the braking system and legislating an increase in staffing that would allow for larger crews, more thorough inspections and additional time for maintenance.
“If you have one-person crews, if you have archaic braking systems, and you have unworkable maintenance expectations, you're going to see these types of accidents. And that's why we're seeing them,” Junod said.
Some state and federal officials have raised the possibility of regulatory changes in the wake of the East Palestine derailment, but so far they’ve mostly focused on rules that would require the railroad to notify local officials in advance about trains carrying hazardous materials.
In a fact sheet released Friday, the White House said Biden’s Department of Transportation was “working on rulemakings to improve rail safety including proposing a rule that would require a minimum of a two-person train crew size for safety reasons” and “developing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that will require railroads to provide real-time information on the contents of tank cars to authorized emergency response officials responding to or investigating an incident involving the transportation of hazardous materials by rail.”
The East Palestine derailment has also broached questions about who should be responsible for handling the response to these incidents, and whether railroad companies can be trusted to prioritize public health and safety over their own financial interests.
Norfolk Southern’s response in East Palestine has been criticized by residents and officials in both state and federal governments. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro expressed “serious concerns” on Tuesday, accusing the company of having been unwilling to explore alternative courses of action, “including some that may have kept the rail line closed longer but could have resulted in a safer overall approach for first responders, residents, and the environment." The EPA said earlier this week that Norfolk Southern failed to properly dispose of contaminated soil at the crash site in its effort to get the railway reopened.
In an email to Yahoo News earlier this week, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said the company has “called the governor to address his concerns,” and insisted that it is “committed to ensuring health and safety through ongoing environmental monitoring and support for their needs.”
“Norfolk Southern was on-scene immediately following the derailment and began working directly with local, state, and federal officials as they arrived at the unified command established in East Palestine by local officials, including those from Pennsylvania,” the company said. “We remain at the command post today working alongside those agencies to keep information flowing from our teams working at the site.”
Reports from East Palestine this week revealed the community's skepticism and mistrust of the controlled burn of chemicals from the derailed cars. Despite repeated assurances from state officials that it was now safe for residents who had been forced to evacuate during the burn to return to their homes, many locals continued to report rashes, headaches and difficulty breathing, as well as an odd smell in the air.
“We've been let down,” one local woman told EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who met with residents in East Palestine on Thursday as EPA officials conducted tests of the water and air at their homes. “My community should not have been back before that was done.”
Junod noted that even if the cleanup occurs and residents receive financial compensation, long-term psychological trauma will persist after an incident like the one in East Palestine, which she described as “fundamentally [changing] this community for the people that live there.” She cited a 2013 train accident that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. Six years after the crash and explosion, a study from the regional public health authority showed that while residents had been improving, seven out of 10 adults "still showed signs of post-traumatic stress,” and that at least two suicides had been linked to the accident.
“People are incredibly distressed, and there are effects we see over the long-term years from now in other communities that have experienced this type of catastrophe,” Junod said. “You see PTSD, you see depression, you see anxiety at levels that didn't exist before.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, city officials in Sandusky announced this week that the underpass closed off since the train derailment in October was now partially reopened to northbound traffic, with a 15 mph speed limit.
In interviews with local news outlets, the city’s director of public works hailed this as a sign of progress, after months of frustration. But public comments posted to the city of Sandusky’s Facebook page in response to the announcement on Thursday revealed a mix of relief, skepticism and fear from local residents, especially in light of recent events.
“Hey, they could have had hazardous cargo,” wrote one person. “Consider ourselves lucky.”