Hazardous and Solid Waste, Hazardous Waste Management

Train Derailments Highlight Issues with Train Safety and Toxic Waste Disposal

Over 2 months later, cleanup continues after a fiery February 3, 2023, train derailment in Ohio. At the time, Norfolk Southern reported that an unknown number of the 150 train cars had derailed, but 20 of the cars were listed as carrying hazardous materials. Five of the derailed cars were loaded with vinyl chloride, which is used in the production of plastic and releases toxic chemicals when burned. Approximately 50 cars were affected by the derailment, with the rest being uncoupled and removed from the scene.

The EPA-led cleanup efforts have revealed issues with toxic waste disposal, and the derailment itself has highlighted the need for more stringent railway safety regulations.

Cleanup to date

Last month, EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced the Agency was “optimistic” that the cleanup process would be completed within 3 months, according to a March 18, 2023, article in The Review.

“At the current rate the EPA anticipates that it will take approximately three months to complete our cleanup of the site. That number can change based on site conditions, weather and access to disposal facilities, but we’re optimistic about the current trajectory,” Regan said.

At that time, “nearly half of the total excavation of contaminated soil from under the tracks” had been completed, and “significant progress” had been made on the removal of the remaining soil.

“These efforts represent the entirety of the southern area of the tracks excavated down to the clay layer, with excavation of the north section expected to be completed in early April,” The Review says. “Regan also addressed the removal of waste from the area, noting millions of gallons of liquid waste and thousands of tons of solid waste have already been removed.”

Currently, the EPA reports the following progress:

  • Air sparging is a common cleanup technique that involves putting air into the water so oxygen and microbes break down chemicals. Air sparging has been completed in Leslie Run and Sulphur Run at the East Palestine City Park. Next steps will include continued cleaning of the sediment in both streams.
  • Water diversion—water is being pumped around the derailment site to prevent contamination from being carried downstream. Pumps near State Line Lake carry clean water past the derailment site to where it’s pumped back into Sulphur Run. The pumping operation is also protecting the wetlands area near State Line Lake.
  • Soil sampling—EPA Region 3, in coordination with the PA Department of Environmental Protection and the PA Department of Agriculture, completed soil sampling of 15 priority farms within 2 to 8 miles of the derailment site. The sampling was conducted in coordination with the Lawrence and Beaver County extension offices. The preliminary results from this round of sampling don’t show impacts from the derailment.
  • Track excavation—the excavation of the south track is nearing completion, and soil waste is continuing to be shipped off-site for disposal. After the south track excavation finishes and the track is reconstructed, the excavation can begin on the north track. Planning is currently underway for the north track excavation.
  • Air monitoring—as of March 18, 2023, 616 indoor air screenings had been conducted. “There is also ongoing 24-hour, seven-day a week air monitoring at 23 stations across the community, none of which have detected vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride thus far,” according to The Review.

Waste disposal

As of March, sources say the EPA has reported 6.8 million gallons of liquid waste and more than 5,400 tons of solid waste had been transported out of East Palestine to designated waste facilities.

The EPA states there are more than 97,000 shipments of hazardous waste in the United States each month, with two-thirds of those shipments crossing state lines. Hazardous waste management facilities receive hazardous wastes for treatment, storage, or disposal. These facilities are often referred to as treatment, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs). Within the United States, there are more than 1,250 landfill facilities, with the majority of facilities located in the southern and midwestern United States, according to a February 6, 2023, report by Statista.

With hazardous waste shipments occurring daily, it came as a surprise when Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt said that “he had blocked a shipment of hazardous waste from the derailment to a facility in his state,” The Jerusalem Post says.

The governor’s action sparked a warning from Regan.

“US states cannot block shipments of hazardous waste from a Feb. 3 Ohio train derailment to licensed disposal sites, the head of the [EPA] said,” The Jerusalem Post continues. “Regan told reporters he sent letters to all states warning ‘any attempts to impede interstate shipments of hazardous waste threatens the integrity of the system.’ He said the Oklahoma site has a permit to receive the waste.”

Both Regan and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine were confused by the refusal to accept the waste.

“It’s kind of crazy because what we’re sending from here is no worse than stuff they are taking every other day,” DeWine said in The Jerusalem Post article. “In fact, they are taking a lot [worse] stuff than we’re sending them.”

In response to actions to block the waste shipments, Regan directed the EPA to issue letters to state agencies and to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw to remind them of their “legal obligations.”

“Some states have sought to block acceptance of waste from the cleanup site, and some have even taken misinformed and misguided shots at EPA in the process, but it’s the people of East Palestine who are being hurt, and EPA will not stand for it,” said Regan, according to The Salem News.

“The letter to Shaw directs the company not just to find appropriate facilities and follow proper procedure for the disposal of the contaminated soil, but to ‘take legal action to enforce contracts and or to obtain access to EPA-approved disposal facilities’ as necessary. Regan said the letter further explains that failure of Norfolk Southern to ‘properly arrange for disposal at an EPA-approved disposal facility’ could leave the company subject to civil penalties and damages and potentially even referral to the [U.S.] Department of Justice for judicial enforcement of the terms of the order,” The Salem News adds. “Regan said the letter issued to the state agencies [reminds] ‘them that states cannot unilaterally stop shipments of out-of-state hazardous waste from East Palestine.’ Regan also said that a state that blocked shipments ‘may be impeding Norfolk Southern’s ability to comply with its obligations under CERCLA as well as EPA’s order to Norfolk Southern, which is unlawful’ and that such actions also potentially violated the commerce clause of the [U.S.] Constitution.”

Railroad safety

What went wrong in the Ohio train derailment? 

“As Norfolk Southern’s Train 32N traveled toward East Palestine on Feb. 3, it passed a series of detectors (sensors) along the track designed to pick up overheated wheel bearings, a major cause of derailments. The temperature of a bearing on the train’s 23rd car rose before the train reached the town,” says The New York Times. “But then 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 East Palestine derailment marked one of three recent train derailments for Norfolk Southern. Hours after the third incident in Springfield, Ohio, internal e-mails revealed company leaders calling for safety adjustments corporate-wide, according to CNBC.

“An internal Norfolk Southern email sent Sunday and obtained by CNBC with a time stamp approximately 11 hours after the latest derailment indicated that Norfolk Southern was planning to reduce train length in an effort to prevent future incidents,” CNBC adds.

“A Norfolk Southern spokesman told CNBC that guidance has since been updated and the train carrier is now mandating that any trains over 10,000 feet use distributed power, meaning the trains would be powered from several locations across the length of the train, not just from the front. Distributed locomotives are wirelessly controlled from the leading locomotive in both power and braking as needed.”

However, the East Palestine train had distributed power in place, so some analysts and lawmakers believe more regulations are necessary for railway safety.

Some of these issues, such as train lengths, have been contentious between railways and labor unions for many years.

The railway industry utilizes precision scheduled railroading (PSR), which means stacking cars based on destination rather than weight distribution. The practice has led to very long trains, some as long as 3 miles in length.

Safety experts call for the use of more sensors and believe the federal government should regulate the use of sensors in railways.

“There is a wide range of opinion on how closely these devices should be placed,” The New York Times continues. “A bipartisan bill on rail safety introduced last week would require sensors after every 10 miles on tracks over which hazardous materials are transported.”

The Railroad Safety Act of 2023 was introduced by two Ohio senators in response to the recent derailments. Cosponsored by senators Sherrod Brown (D) and JD Vance (R), the proposed bill “calls for more rules and regulations on trains carrying hazardous materials, requires a minimum of two-person crews, increases fines for wrongdoing and requires more time for car inspections,” reports NewsNation. “At the moment, the mandatory time allowed for each car inspection is just one minute.”

“Now we’re faced with a choice with this legislation and how we respond to this crisis,” Vance noted in the NewsNation article. “Do we do the bidding of a massive industry that is in bed with big government? Or do we do the bidding of the people who elected us to the Senate and Congress in the first place?”

“Rail lobbyists have fought stronger safety standards for years, and Ohio communities like East Palestine and Springfield have paid the price,” Brown said in a statement to The New York Times.

In testimony before a Senate hearing, Shaw conveyed that he would not support a bill that would put in place lengthy regulations for the railroad industry.

“Shaw did agree with some of the regulations within the bill, saying he could get behind and support ‘the legislative intent to make rail safer,’” NewsNation continues. “He said Norfolk Southern could support improving railcar standards, more funding for first responders and newer track detector technology to spot problems with coming trains.”

Currently, the railway industry is overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration, a small agency that often allows rail companies to set their own standards and issues guidance that isn’t mandatory.

“The federal government does not require the use of temperature detectors along tracks, nor does it regulate how such equipment is inspected or maintained,” continues The New York Times. “Those decisions are left up to railroads and their trade association.”

If passed, the 2023 Railroad Safety Act would require the placement of sensors at a maximum distance of 10 miles on tracks used for the transportation of hazardous materials.

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