A devastating train derailment Feb. 3 in a small town on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border has once again raised fears of so-called “bomb trains” crisscrossing America. About 50 train cars derailed in East Palestine, about 20 of them carrying hazardous chemicals. Vinyl chloride, the chemical used to make PVC pipe, was the initial concern, but the Norfolk Southern railroad has since revealed other toxic chemicals were on board, including the carcinogen ethylhexyl acrylate and butyl acrylate.
More than 2,000 residents were evacuated, and, as often happens, federal authorities downplayed the severity of the toxic release and told residents it was safe to return. Calls for action from local leaders up to President Joe Biden continue to mount as the full extent of the disaster grows. Officials have recently confirmed that chemicals from the derailment have leached into the Ohio River basin, potentially affecting 25 million people.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Amanda Kiger, director of the group River Valley Organizing, a community organization that works for a safer, cleaner environment in small towns and rural areas along the Ohio River. Here, she describes the conditions in East Palestine after the derailment and alternatives to toxic “bomb trains” that speed through populated communities.
AMANDA KIGER: They have been told it’s safe to go home, but it’s not safe. Our county is very poor; we’re some of the lowest economic strata in Ohio. And so, some folks were lucky enough that before they went back in, they were able to pay someone to say whether their home was safe or not.
And those folks that did that, they’ve been told their homes are not safe. And so, we have other folks who have no money – they are working poor, working retail, restaurant jobs – that are being forced with their children to go back when it’s not safe.
From folks that went back to a Pennsylvania home, they actually had a data sheet that could help them get a little better protections. It had things in it like don’t vacuum your rugs for so many days, make sure you change your air filters, get your air ducts cleaned out. Those kinds of things that even though it may not help them, it at least gave them something. Folks on the Ohio side were just told to go home.
MELINDA TUHUS: What is it that’s not safe about it?
AMANDA KIGER: It still has high levels of pollutants in it. So that’s what they’re detecting. There is still chemical exposure. This is a small town. There’s a creek that runs right through it, there are creeks that run directly through folks’ property. And so folks are literally 20 steps away from their front door to the creek and they’ve been told to stay 1,000 feet from the creek because it would melt rubber. But they’re being told to go into their homes.
MELINDA TUHUS: Why did this even happen? Do we know yet?
AMANDA KIGER: So, we have been in contact with a few folks and they are actually going through the whistleblower process and gaining that protection. We’ve been told by folks who work for the railroad and folks who have contracted with the railroad that there were some safety measures that were cut as a cost-saving measure.
That on top of, in 2015, we begged the federal government to not let these “bomb trains” come through our communities. We knew this was going to happen. We fought it because they had to have special permission to have these types of volatile substances on railways that went through communities. The federal government allowed this to happen. They didn’t listen. And since 2015 there’s been hundreds of instances much like ours along the routes of these bomb trains.
MELINDA TUHUS: So, it’s the federal Department of Transportation that didn’t listen?
AMANDA KIGER: Yeah. There’s just so much blame to go around from how it happened, what could have stopped it, clear up to the remediation, with Ohio’s governor refusing to make this a federal disaster so FEMA can come in and give our community the supports it needs.
MELINDA TUHUS: So, when you said you don’t want the bomb trains, that’s very understandable. But I know people fighting pipelines and pipelines have been delayed or stopped, the oil companies send the oil on bomb trains, and there’s been terrible crashes and people have been killed. People would say the solution is not to put it through pipelines because we don’t want the pipelines either. So, what do you want to see happen with these toxic materials?
AMANDA KIGER: I would say that many of the materials on this specific train were actually being brought here for the petrochemical hub that’s being built here because of the shale gas boom. So I would say we need to have that just transition.
We’ve been begging for it for years. I know we’ve been begging for it for the 20 years I’ve been in the movement. Why are we still going after this?
We have to transition to clean energy. There isn’t another choice at this point. Ohio itself used to be Number One in solar manufacturing; that was a good piece of our economy. Our economy doesn’t have to be gas and oil. We can move back into that, which was being set by a previous administration. That is just the answer. As long as we’re working with volatile substances, to feed our greed and to feed our need for electricity, which we do need, and plastics, that people think we need, we are gonna have this.
You kind of get used to saying this, but sometimes it just pisses you off a little more every time you say it, but really, we keep predicting the future. The disasters we predict keep happening. When are we gonna listen? When are we gonna listen to science? When are we gonna protect our future and our people? This wasn’t a surprise; we knew this was coming.
Learn more about the effects of the Ohio train derailment and the of River Valley Organizing by visiting River Valley Organizing at rivervalleyorganizing.org and on Facebook at facebook.com/rivervalleyorganizing.
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