A train carrying toxic chemicals derailed and caused a fire on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, leaving Louisiana residents cautious of the possibly dangerous uncertainties with the spreading of the toxins.

“Environmental disasters are very serious and much more impactful than we think about. From the public health point of view, from ecological point of view, from environmental point of view, from the economic costs and cleanup, it is serious,” Dr. Durga Poudel, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette environmental science professor said regarding the recent train incident. 

Operated by Norfolk Southern, the train was traveling from Madison, Illinois to Conway, Pennsylvania when the fire ignited due to an increase in heat with the wheel bearing; the alarm did not sound in enough time for operators to prevent the derailment. 

According to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board, “The wayside defect detector, or hot bearing detector (HBD), transmitted a critical audible alarm message instructing the crew to slow and stop the train to inspect a hot axle. The train engineer increased the dynamic brake application to further slow and stop the train. After the train stopped, the crew observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment.”

The train consisted of 150 cars; 38 cars derailed and led to a fire that further damaged 12 additional cars. Various chemicals were in the cars, including vinyl chloride, a chemical that can generate an explosion when exposed to heat, which Ohio officials and residents feared. 

The rural village of East Palestine, consisting of approximately 4,700 residents, was informed to evacuate and law enforcement underwent the releasing process of the hazardous fumes. 

As of March 2, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), they did not find any exceedances when it came to inside and outside air quality for residents, but with residents expressing their concerns, they will oversee Norfolk Southern’s sampling process for dioxins. 

On March 3, according to the EPA, the department approved Norfolk Southern’s plans to excavate contaminated soil from the site of the incident, and neither vinyl chloride nor hydrogen chloride were  found. 

Although excavation efforts are underway, Louisiana residents are still unsure of the potential results of this incident. Poudel, however, did share that because of the volume of the Mississippi River and the fact that two Canadian provinces and 31 states drain into the river, the toxins could be diluted by time it reaches Louisiana. 

“If it is a small volume of water, then yes, it will be very high concentration, and that will be toxic. But if you have a large body of water, then the same amount of toxin will be diluted and will not impact,” Poudel said. 

Poudel shared how essential the monitoring and mapping process was for this investigation, especially determining the hottest spots where the pollutants are heavily concentrated and where officials should focus more, along with where people would need to take caution. 

“If something disastrous were to happen in Lafayette, and then we all will say that everywhere is a problem, and we cannot go, but it may be in only one part of the city where you have a real issue, and in other parts of the city, you might not have any problem there,” Poudel said. 

Although the toxins would be distilled by the time they reach Louisiana, Poudel did share some problems that might be concerning for not just Louisiana, but Ohio residents as well. The soil pollution could greatly affect the food supply in Ohio, and conducting soil pollution remediation would be necessary because once the soil is contaminated, the contaminants would be there for a long time. 

Other sources like water could also be contaminated from those lingering toxins in the soil with the water filtering through the polluted soil.  

According to Poudel, another issue could be the transformation of these chemicals to something that could be more alarming than people had envisioned. The changing environment could lead to a more harmful reaction from the chemicals, even if it is not visible or determined at this current moment. 

“So, the chemicals that visually they are analyzing, they find not very high levels of toxicity, but there could be some other product of these chemicals, when they are in the ground or in the air or in the water,” Poudel said. “What are these other products? We do not know that. And how deadly are these other products? We do not know. That is the problem of an environmental disaster like this.”

Government officials shared their response to this incident.

“Over the course of my response to Norfolk Southern’s train derailment disaster, I have called upon Congress to take action regarding federal rail regulations, including looking at the safety issues the East Palestine derailment has raised. I have also called on Congress to change regulations to ensure states are notified when trains carrying hazardous materials are running through those states.  Federal statutes pre-empt regulations by the states, so it is important that action is taken by Congress,” Ohio Governor Mike DeWine wrote. 

Poudel shared the reality of the longevity of an environmental disaster such as this one. 

“They tend to look at the government or EPA or response team, and then they like to have solutions right away and then get back to the comfort zone, but unfortunately, it doesn’t happen,” Poudel said. “It’s a disaster, and once it happens, it is there.”