Unfortunately, vinyl chloride, when burned, turns into a dioxin, a highly potent, cancer-causing chemical linked with reproductive and developmental problems. The chemical fire Norfolk Southern started released over one million pounds of dioxins into the environment, contaminating East Palestine residents’ homes, businesses, rivers, soil, water, and air.
Starting on the day of the derailment, residents began reporting symptoms and illnesses, such as respiratory problems, rashes, nose bleeds, digestive issues, sore throats, and headaches. But Norfolk Southern promised residents everything was safe, and they could return to their homes. A short time after the evacuation order was lifted, new railroad tracks were laid on top of the toxic soil. Within hours, trains began running in East Palestine again. It was business as usual, as Norfolk Southern knowingly left the chemical waste behind to fester.
Now, nearly six months after the accident, residents continue reporting symptoms consistent with toxic chemical exposure. A recent independent study has determined dioxin levels are between 27,000% and 154,000% above control samples, confirming residents’ fears about the railroad’s cover-up. This study is exactly what residents have been waiting for. The testing that Norfolk Southern provided East Palestine residents was clearly flawed in the first place.
Norfolk Southern hired the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, or “CTEH” to run their testing. It’s no surprise the results showed that residents had no cause for concern. CTEH has been accused of improper data collection methods to serve corporate interests instead of serving public health needs. In the 2005 oil spill during Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee, and the 2010 BP oil spill, CTEH was accused of mishandling data collection. In East Palestine, the CTEH, not the EPA, designed protocols for tests, ran the local hotline where residents called with health concerns, and conducted water, soil, and air quality testing.
Just like CTEH, Norfolk Southern is also no stranger to involvement in environmental disasters. Norfolk Southern is behind four of Ohio’s five costliest railroad accidents involving hazardous materials in the last decade. These derailments were avoidable and occurred because the railroad prioritized profits over safety. Norfolk Southern previously supported repealing a 2015 safety requirement for freight trains carrying hazardous materials to be fitted with electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes. The company spent millions of dollars lobbying against the common-sense safety requirement.
As of August 2023, Norfolk Southern has estimated their costs from the derailment at $803 million, which is minor compared to its quarterly revenue of nearly $3 billion. And this doesn’t value the costs of residents’ future health expenses, depreciated home values, or relocation. While the railroad will undoubtedly recover financially, the permanent health risks the derailment caused residents will only increase, with no promises from the railroad of any long-term assistance.