Chemical Spill in Ohio Shines Light on Mistrust in Large Corporations

An overhead view of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.


An overhead view of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Neal Waites, Features Editor

At around 9 p.m. on Feb. 3, a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The train, under the operation of Norfolk Southern, was carrying chemicals, the two most concerning being vinyl chloride and butyl acrylic. As revealed later, the wheels of the train had overheated, causing the train to derail and spill toxic chemicals.

According to a New York Times article from March 7, “there wasn’t another heat detector for almost 20 miles, by which time the temperature had soared to critical levels, setting off an alarm. As the crew engaged the brakes, the bearing broke, and the car and 37 others derailed, spilling a cargo of toxic chemicals and prompting officials to authorize a controlled burn of hazardous substances. …

“The Federal Railroad Administration, a tiny agency overseeing a multibillion-dollar industry, lets rail companies set some of their own standards,” the New York Times continued. “When the agency does act, it sometimes issues guidance that railroads are not obligated to follow.”

Chris York, environmental science teacher at Nonnewaug, gave some insight on the consequences of a disaster like this.

“We have this thing in environmental science: There is no go away,” York said. “Some people think that you burn stuff like that and it just disappears or goes into space, and that’s just not how it works.”

“That stuff is gonna be in the atmosphere, it’s gonna head downstream, it’s gonna combine with water and fall back to earth, and so on. It’s a terrible, terrible situation,” York continued. “One of the things we’ve been looking at in environmental science is environmental injustice. If you look at statistics, for example, the percentage of people that are minorities that live near landfills. “

Environmental injustice is defined by Ben Crump Law as “a systemic problem resulting from the alienation and segregation of specific groups within communities. These groups generally fall along racial, socioeconomic, and similar divisions.”

York said this derailment falls in line with the idea of environmental injustice.

“Unfortunately, you see a situation like this and the area that it affects, whose community I believe has a high percentage of minorities and people that are lower on the socio-economic scale,” York continued. “I think the outcry has been from many of those people, especially who are very upset with the government, and who have a little money where moving away from those areas might be hard.”

Some here at Nonnewaug, such as senior Kaylia Hall, expressed their sympathy for those living in the area. 

“I heard about the train incident online about how all the chemicals spilled and everything, and it honestly breaks my heart because this is something that seems to happen all the time but the world ignores it,” Hall said. “I feel like that would affect not only the air but the water as well and what they need daily over there.”

So many people are questioning how this could happen, but also if it could occur here.

“I’m extremely disappointed and concerned. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place, and it’s scary to think that it did happen and could happen here,” said Sierra Reynolds, a Nonnewaug senior. “I think it’s scary and disappointing that other people have to suffer because of some careless corporations’ easily avoidable mistakes.”

These questions are very scary to think about, but necessary to ask. After all, what even is stopping something like this from happening here? Without the proper regulations, as well as proper enforcement of those regulations, what is stopping these companies from maximizing their profits in exchange for not focusing on the safety of the people?