The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promises to shed light on the consequences of the train derailment in Ohio and the consequent spill of toxic chemicals.
Despite reassurances from authorities, local residents are worried about their health.
Rail company Norfolk Southern has spent more in the past five years to reward its shareholders than to modernise its lines.
“Let me be clear: EPA is not leaving East Palestine until the job is done and every resident feels safe in their home. And we will use our authority to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.” These are the words tweeted by Michael Regan, head of the EPA, who promised to shed light on the train derailment that took place in Ohio in early February. The derailed convoy was loaded with toxic chemicals which initially caught fire and have now leached into the waters of the Ohio river. Local residents, however, still feel anything but safe.
Let me be clear: @EPA is not leaving East Palestine until the job is done and every resident feels safe in their home.
The Environmental Protection Agency has made it known that it sent its inspectors to the site of the incident from the first day to monitor air and water quality (the water has been declared safe to drink). Indoor air quality in some five hundred homes was also tested on a voluntary basis, without finding levels of vinyl chloride or hydrochloric acid greater than those of concern. These reassurances, however, have not felt like enough for the approximately 5,000 residents of East Palestine, whose daily lives were upended from one day to the next.
Communications from authorities have been described as deficient and contradictory. Initially, for example, only vinyl chloride was mentioned. But it could still take months before federal agencies publish the complete list of toxic chemicals that were being transported on the train. “People are just angry but they don’t know who to be angry with because we’re not getting enough information to know who to be mad at,” said local resident Jami Cozza, who was among those initially evacuated and then allowed to return to their homes, speaking to the Guardian. “‘The air is fine, but don’t go outside. Your water is fine, but drink bottled water.’ You can’t trust them.”
Vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene.
The water, air, and soil around East Palestine, Ohio have been contaminated by these dangerous chemicals from Norfolk Southern’s derailed train. Some are known carcinogens.pic.twitter.com/wU7JekhMQP
Another East Palestine resident, Candice Desanzo, says her eyes have been puffy and red since the day of the incident, and her husband and children have developed rashes after bathing. She would like to leave, but cannot afford to. “I can’t help but feel like I’m slowly poisoning my kids by staying,” she said.
Norfolk Southern under fire
In the meantime, the spotlight has been firmly set upon Norfolk Southern, one of North America’s largest rail companies, which owned and managed the train that derailed in Ohio. Just over a month ago, notes the New York Times, the CEO was celebrating record profits and telling shareholders that the service was “at its best level in the past two years.”
A closer look at the data published by the company reveals that revenues in 2022 increased by 14 per cent compared to the previous year, amounting to 12.7 billion dollars. And, during this record year, the company invested almost 2 billion dollars in railway lines, almost one-third more than in 2021. At the same time, however, almost 18 billion dollars have ended up in its shareholders‘ pockets in the past five years, in the form of dividends and stock buybacks. All in all, therefore, in the past half-decade it has spent much more (almost double the amount) on enriching its shareholders than on maintaining the safety of its railway lines.
“For years, the railroads have fought all kinds of basic safety regulations — modern braking systems, stronger tank cars for explosive materials, even information about what’s on trains passing through communities — based on an argument that it simply costs too much to protect our lives, health, and our air and water,” said Kristen Boyles, a managing attorney at environmental group Earthjustice. “It’s disgusting to find out that at the same time, these companies have been making massive shareholder payments.”