The train tracks involved in the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern Corp. train in East Palestine, Ohio, were familiar to me. I walked across those tracks a few times as a kid.
I have relatives in East Palestine who have lived there for many years. Honestly, I don't think I'd ever heard anyone outside of my family ever mention East Palestine, and now it's been on national news almost every day for more than a month. East Palestine is a nice and solid small town — like many in Ohio — that seemingly never changes. (Census data confirms my impression. East Palestine's population has been around 5,000 — give or take a few hundred — since 1920.)
That all changed on Feb. 3, when a Norfolk Southern train derailed there. The cause of the derailment remains under investigation. The main impact came when one of five cars containing vinyl chloride monomer, a feedstock primarily used to make PVC resin, began to overheat, causing fear of a potential explosion.
On Feb. 6, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and railroad officials decided to drain those cars and burn off the VCM rather than risk a massive explosion that could have sent shrapnel up to a mile away. The burnoff caused massive clouds of black smoke and ash, as well as chemical odors.
My relatives in East Palestine — my aunt Nancy, my cousin Pat and his son Ian — stayed there and are doing OK. They live outside of the area where residents were required to evacuate. Part of their street was blocked off, but not the part where they live.
State and federal environmental officials have tested air and water levels in East Palestine and have said that both are safe, although low levels of hazardous substances were detected and several thousand small fish have died in local waterways. Officials have asked local residents using private water wells to have those tested as well.
Officials also have conducted air quality tests at more than 500 houses as requested by residents. No dangerous air quality levels have been detected.
But that hasn't stopped the event from becoming a political football, with politicians on both sides of the aisle getting involved. Fingers have been pointed in all directions, with East Palestine caught in the middle.
A U.S. Senate committee held a hearing on the derailment March 9. NS President and CEO Alan Shaw apologized for the accident. During the hearing, the railroad was taken to task by both of Ohio's senators: Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican J.D. Vance.
NS has been scrambling to provide support and make up from an early misstep when it announced a support fund of only $25,000 for the area. In 2022, NS, a publicly held firm based in Atlanta, posted a profit of almost $3.3 billion. NS now has committed more than $20 million to relief efforts.
Critics of plastics also have had a field day with the East Palestine derailment. VCM isn't itself a plastic, but its main use is making PVC, which is then converted into a multitude of products, mostly for the building and construction market. Critics now are pointing to safety conditions involving transportation of plastics and related chemicals.
It's also amazing that the decision on what to do with five rail cars of VCM came down to DeWine — a career politician with no scientific training — and railroad officials, who were trying to balance safety concerns with their desire to get the rail line up and running again. I'm sure they consulted with safety experts before making that decision, but it really seems like a neutral third party, with no political or business interests, should have been more involved.
What does all of this mean to the people of East Palestine? They're trying to go on with their lives as best as they can as the national spotlight moves on to other news events. And I imagine that they're hoping to return to the quiet life of a small town in Ohio.
Frank Esposito is an Ohio-based Plastics News senior reporter. Follow him on Twitter @fesposito22.