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This is horrifying, and how it’s being handled by “the officials” is downright infuriating. 

It’s almost as if a 2022 movie adaptation of the 1985 Don DeLillo novel “White Noise.” is playing out in real life. 

Because it IS happening in real life.

In that story, a train derails and spills chemicals, causing an “airborne toxic event” that forces the evacuation of a small, Midwestern college town.

The horrifying part…

On Feb. 3, the train that derailed in the village of East Palestine set off evacuation orders, a chemical scare, and a federal investigation. 

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating, said in a Feb. 14 press release that 38 cars derailed, and a fire ensued, which damaged another 12 cars. 

The smoke cloud, filled with multiple toxic chemicals, covered the entire town. The train, operated by Norfolk Southern, was carrying chemicals and combustible materials, with vinyl chloride, a toxic flammable gas, being of most concern to investigators.

Vinyl chloride boils at 8° Fahrenheit. Allowing it to combust could have caused a MASSIVE explosion. Instead, authorities carried out a “controlled release” of the chemical, then lit it on fire to burn it off in a “safer” way than risking the explosion.

Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio ordered residents on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border to evacuate.

Local and federal officials started an investigation that involved the N.T.S.B. and the Environmental Protection Agency. The N.T.S.B. said its investigation included examining tank car fittings, the locomotive event data recorder, and surveillance video from a residence that showed what appeared to be the failure of a wheel bearing moments before the derailment.

The agencies said they would have a preliminary report by the end of the month. 

For most, however, the accident itself isn’t what people are angry about. Instead, concerns are very high about air, soil, and water pollution.

Chemicals including vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ethers were “known to have been and continue to be” released to the air, surface soil, and surface waters, the E.P.A. said.

This is where it goes from unfortunate to infuriating… 

On Feb. 12, the E.P.A., after monitoring the air, said it had not detected contaminants at “levels of concern” in and around East Palestine, although residents might still smell odors. 

Working with Norfolk Southern and the Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency, the E.P.A. had screened the air inside about 290 homes as of Feb. 13. It said it had “not detected” vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride, which could cause life-threatening respiratory issues.

The agency said that 181 homes were still awaiting screening as of Feb. 13.

The West Virginia subsidiary of American Water, which provides water services in 24 states, said on Feb. 12 that it had “not detected any change to raw water at the company’s Ohio River intake, though as a precautionary measure, the company has enhanced its treatment processes.” So, they installed a secondary intake on the Guyandotte River “in case an alternate source was needed.” 

“There is a slim chance that we will detect contamination from this spill at our site because our structure is around 700 river miles away from the spill,” said Ella Johnson-Watson, a spokeswoman for The Evansville Water and Sewer Utility in Indiana, said.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Tiffani Kavalec, the surface water division chief for the Ohio E.P.A., said that testing had detected two chemical contaminants in some Ohio River tributaries. Water treatment processes should filter the contaminants out, she said.

“We’re pretty confident that these low levels are not getting passed onto the customers,” she said.

Gov. DeWine, however, said that if he lived in the affected area, he would drink bottled water.

There have been no reports of injuries or deaths from the derailment. Still, some residents posted pictures on social media of fish and frogs that were dying in local streams, and people shared images of dead animals or said they smelled chemical odors around town. Reports of indoor pets dying are even starting to circulate.

And the arrest of a reporter during a news conference about the derailment led to online criticism of the law enforcement response.

On Feb. 6, Gov. DeWine extended the evacuation order to include anyone in a “one-by-two-mile area surrounding East Palestine, including parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania.” Only two days later, on Feb. 8, the governor’s office announced that residents could return home after air quality samples measured contaminants below levels of concern. In addition, the East Palestine Water Treatment Plant said it had not seen “adverse effects.”

As numerous residents of the area have complained of headaches and feeling sick since the derailment, a federal lawsuit filed by two Pennsylvania residents is seeking to force Norfolk Southern to set up health monitoring for residents in both states, The Associated Press reported, and to pay for related care for those in a 30-mile radius.

The E.P.A. informed Norfolk Southern on Feb. 10 that it might be responsible for costs associated with the cleanup of the site. However, the agency did not offer details about when the site might be “considered completely” returned to normal.

Who knows if it will ever “return to normal?” We’re sure the good people of East Palestine and the surrounding areas aren’t going to feel that way for a while… and that’s to say nothing of potential cancer risks and continued adverse health effects just from living in the area.

Our prayers are that they heal — body, soul, and spirit — quickly from this.

UPDATE – Employees at Norfolk Southern have now said that the train car responsible had actually failed two days prior to the accident but was still allowed to run.

UPDATE – It has now been brought to public attention that vinyl chloride, when burned as it was, breaks down into (among other things) phosgene. Phosgene was used as a chemical weapon during World War I. We are speechless.