A freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio (Credit: NTSB Board/ Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train, en route from Illinois to Pennsylvania, derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Five of the 38 derailed cars contained toxic chemicals. They sparked a massive fire sending heavy smoke in the air. Concerned about more explosions, authorities asked people living within a one-mile area of the site to evacuate.

What chemicals were on the train?

A resident captured the smoke from the February 3 accident (Credit: thunderlips36/ CC-BY-SA-4.0/ Wikimedia Commons)

The train was carrying several chemicals. But officials were most concerned about vinyl chloride that was in five cars that had not derailed. The chemical is known to cause dizziness, headaches, and drowsiness. An extended exposure can even result in a rare form of liver cancer.

The officials feared the vinyl chloride would explode and cause more widespread pollution. To prevent that, they authorized a controlled burn-off of the chemical on February 6, 2023. Residents within one mile (1.6 km) of the accident were again asked to leave their homes. Those within two miles (3.2 km) of the site had to shelter in place.

What has happened since?

Norfolk Southern has been ordered to clean up the soil and water around the accident site (Credit: Response/ EPA..gov)

The evacuation order was lifted on February 8, 2023. Since then, state and federal officials have deemed the area's water and air pollutant-free. But East Palestine residents are skeptical. They can still smell the chemicals in the air. Many have experienced rashes, sore throats, nausea, and headaches since the accident.

Additionally, about 3,500 dead fish were found in nearby waterways in the days following the incident. Experts assert they probably died due to the chemicals released during the derailment. They maintain that the toxins have dispersed from the water in the weeks since.

What next?

Norfolk Southern expects to complete cleanup efforts by April 30, 2023 ( Credit: EPA/ Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

On February 21, 2023, the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern "to conduct all necessary actions associated with the cleanup from the East Palestine train derailment." This includes removing the contaminated soil and water and transporting it safely. The railway operator will also clear out the dirt and gravel beneath the rail tracks and dispose them offsite. The work entails extracting nearly 2,000 feet (610 m) of rail — about one and a half times the height of the Empire State Building! Norfolk Southern has promised to complete the cleanup by April 30, 2023.

Resources: CNN.com, theGuardian.com, ABCnews.go.com, NPR.org