/ Articles / Thoughts From Engineers: A Toxic Fix? Another Chemical Disaster Makes Headlines

Thoughts From Engineers: A Toxic Fix? Another Chemical Disaster Makes Headlines

Chris Maeder on March 24, 2023 - in Articles, Column

The lives of working-class folks tragically intersected with a load of hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, in early February 2023. Zoning laws—designed to keep incompatible uses apart—were of little use in this situation. Additional safety regulations to ensure the smooth transport of chemical cargo by rail may have made a difference, but this is still unclear as the investigation proceeds and facts continue to be pieced together.

This particular disaster is obviously unique, but aspects of this tragedy are familiar. Industries that depend on the chemicals involved in this accident are mainstays of the U.S. economy. From the plastics that go into home goods and building materials to herbicides, fuels and the paint that keeps the walls of our neighborhood schools looking sharp, this is the stuff that makes homes, businesses and our country work. After the initial shock from this disaster passes, the worse thing we could do is normalize the East Palestine event as the cost of doing business. But in some respects, we already have.

The Accident and the Chaotic Aftermath

Questions remain about important details, but the main sequence of events leading up to the disaster are known. According to the preliminary report and update issued by the National Transportation Safety Board on February 23 and 24 (bit.ly/NorfolkDerailment), an eastbound Norfolk Southern Railway freight train derailed on February 3, most likely due to an overheated wheel bearing, causing 38 more trains to derail, 12 of which subsequently caught fire. Twenty of the cars in the train were carrying a variety of hazardous materials commonly used in industrial manufacturing.

Rising temperatures in one of the cars carrying vinyl chloride led the response team to begin a controlled release and burn of the hazardous liquid that five cars were carrying. The liquid was released and set ablaze, at which point chemical toxins of an unknown quantity and character became airborne, infiltrated soil, and contaminated a nearby creek. The death of some 3,500 fish were noted, and efforts were made to contain the contamination with barricades and by rerouting streamflow. Water utilities that withdraw water from the Ohio River were notified and began monitoring intake water and/or switching to alternative sources as the chemical plume moved down the Ohio River.

Water and the Poison It Carries

Early on, it was clear this disaster would affect more people than just the residents of East Palestine. In the days following the accident, media attention shifted to the disposal of the site’s contaminated soil and water. Governors claimed to have been caught off-guard as toxic waste was moved to hazardous waste-management facilities and incinerators located in their states. Now concerns about long-term health impacts affected not only residents of East Palestine, but communities in proximity to the facilities receiving the waste.

With a variety of state and federal agencies involved and mixed analyses relative to the safety of the area’s air and water, bottled water is considered a necessity, and people are reluctant to return home. Informal reports describe lingering chemical odors throughout the town, while experts point to the unknown and therefore unmonitored toxic byproducts of chemical combustion. Focus has lately shifted to private wells and assessing potential threats to the region’s groundwater.

Without diminishing the tragic magnitude of the East Palestine disaster, our widespread and often arbitrary use of poisons has sadly become the equivalent of “background noise.” The East Palestine disaster was a shock, but multiple communities in the United States have been affected by our economy’s chemical dependence via more hidden—but no less troubling—pathways.

Contamination of groundwater by PFAS is already widely documented throughout the country, and, by one estimate, most Americans are affected (bit.ly/ForeverChemicalsUSA). Residents in the city of French Island, Wis., for example, which borders the Mississippi River, now rely exclusively on imported bottled water. In south-central Wisconsin, as a result of short-sighted and limited analysis of the region’s hydrogeology, roughly 35 percent of private wells have been contaminated with Atrazine, an herbicide that’s still in use. No doubt, each of us can think of many more examples. Particularly in the case of groundwater impacts, too often an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality rules—until it’s too late.

We’ve made progress in raising awareness as well as developing “greener” technologies, processes and products. But in spite of steps forward, the volume of “bad stuff” in circulation is still a big, scary issue. The naivete with which we approached—and continue to approach—the use of some chemically derived products means we have put many important natural resources and the public’s health at risk.

The Risk of Normalizing Chemical Disasters

Shortly following the East Palestine disaster, The Guardian published an article (bit.ly/ChemicalAccidents) on the frequency of U.S. chemical disasters. Compiling data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and several nonprofits, the article concluded that roughly every two days, a chemical spill takes place somewhere in the United States. This statistic underlines the extent of our embroilment in a chemically dependent culture.

Widespread use seems manageable and controlled at first until—through disasters such as the one in East Palestine, extensive water contamination or other examples of large-scale pollution—it becomes clear we really don’t have a grip at all. In my opinion, the growth and demand for these products and processes have outpaced our ability to absorb them safely in our environments. Although there are some very substantive federal laws on the books—from the Clean Water Act to the Clean Air Act to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—these statutes may not be enough.

The public attention that follows a disaster of this type often is fleeting. First, the public demands tougher safety standards. Chief executives are forced to testify and explain their choices to Congress. Laws may change and enforcement may ramp up, but then interest subsides. The mood normalizes as another newsworthy crisis grabs the public’s attention. But the variety and volume of chemicals in circulation—and the significant public interest at stake in clean water, air and the rest—means the issue needs to
stay top of mind. 

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About Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder, P.E., M.S., CFM, is engineering director at CivilGEO Inc.; email: [email protected].

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