Ohio derailment raises questions about Washington rail safety

Feb 16, 2023, 11:41 AM | Updated: 11:41 am
FILE - A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains, Feb. 6, 2023. West Virginia's water utility says it's taking precautionary steps following the derailment of a train hauling chemicals that later sent up a toxic plume in Ohio. The utility said in a statement on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2023 that it has enhanced its treatment processes even though there hasn’t been a change in raw water at its Ohio River intake. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, file)
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, file)

A fiery train derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in Ohio could be a haunting vision of Washington’s future if rail safety standards are not raised.

On Feb. 3, outside of East Palestine, Ohio, a train carrying a variety of materials — including cement and steel, alongside 20 cars worth of hazardous materials — derailed, causing plumes of black smoke to hang over the sleepy 4,800-person town.

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The National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) investigation is not yet complete, but early signs suggest that a faulty wheel bearing on one rail car may have caused the derailment, the board said. There were no reported fatalities or injuries.

Half of the town of East Palestine was evacuated between Feb. 3 and Feb. 8, when EPA officials tested the air quality and determined they had not detected “any levels of health concern.”

The derailment raises serious questions about the kinds of materials transported by rail, and the safety measures in place to prevent them. On the Gee and Ursula Show, with guest hosts Mike Lewis and Spike O’Neill, Lewis recalled the various train derailments that recently occurred in Washington state.

“We have been talking about in Washington state for a long time, the issue of underfunded rail and how its led to disasters, both human disasters and logistical ones with the trains,” Lewis said. “We had an oil train derail in Columbia Valley a few years ago, a lot of you probably remember that. We’ve had it in Bellingham; we’ve had it in Everett.”

Three people were killed, and dozens more were injured when an Amtrak train derailed in DuPont, Wash., in December 2017. A train derailed in Custer, Wash. in 2021, spilling 29,000 gallons of crude oil, and three rail cars caught fire.

The release of chemicals in East Palestine caused the deaths of 3,500 fish in the days following the derailment, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated. Department officials said there is no evidence of an increase in fish deaths since those early days and no signs of harm to other types of animals.

Federal Railroad Administration data showed hazardous chemicals were released during 11 train accidents nationwide last year, out of roughly 535 million miles (861 million kilometers), with only two injuries reported. In the past decade, releases of hazardous materials peaked at 20 in both 2018 and 2020.

Of the derailed cars, five contained vinyl chloride, a key component of PVC and also a toxic chemical that can cause neurological symptoms like headaches and dizziness, and exposure to high levels of vinyl chloride has been associated with liver damage and cancer.

“Now, if you live in western Washington, you and particularly if you live within 50 miles of the I-5 corridor, you’re living near freight routes that are carrying much of the same stuff in Washington. This stuff is passing you by now,” Lewis said.

Government accident data shows an uptick in accidents in recent years, although the numbers remain quite small at 8,929 last year. Accidents were tallied at a rate of 17.4 per million train miles (17.4 per 1.6 million train kilometers) in 2019, but that drops to 2.9 accidents per million train miles without incidents at railroad crossings and those involving trespassers that are primarily out of railroads’ control.

“I think this falls under the onus of the responsibility of those who are moving freight by rail. If you’re carrying toxic chemicals that are going to put entire communities in danger, or God forbid the water supply, you should be required to have tankers that are bulletproof — that no matter where you can throw these things off a cliff, they won’t rupture or explode,” O’Neill said.

“The fact that we spend so little money on maintenance, and I agree with you, it’s really the company’s responsibility here,” Lewis said. “Trust me, we’re not going to go another 12 months without another thing like this happening. They’re serious, and we’re not doing enough to address them.”

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While much of the population in East Palestine has returned to their normal lives, the question remains, how safe is it with these chemicals in the water and air?

“Nobody really knows what this is going to do,” Mallory Burkett, a local resident told the Associated Press. “10 years from now is when we’ll really know.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Ohio derailment raises questions about Washington rail safety