Ohio train derailment shows greater problem

On Feb. 3, a train transporting 38 carriages, 10 of which contained hazardous materials, broke an axle and derailed, forcing 2,000 residents of nearby East Palestine, Ohio to evacuate. During cleanup, five tankers holding vinyl chloride –– a compound known to cause cancer –– were cut open and drained into trenches, where crews burned the substance to keep it from exploding on its own.

However, the burning also sent a huge cloud of dark smoke into the air and has garnered a lot of attention on social media.​ Three days after the derailment, the smoke plume could be seen from a passenger plane traveling overhead.

While no deaths have been reported following the derailment, locals have been concerned with its impact on the environment. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), around 3,500 fish were killed from hazardous runoff. Some East Palestine residents have also reported various health issues, including rashes, sore throats and headaches.

Evacuated residents have since been told that they can return home and that pollution levels are not significant enough to have a lasting impact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and ODNR.

Though this derailment happened far from our campus in West Haven, Conn., the implications have far reaching consequences. There is a clear issue with the threat of toxic chemicals and substances in our environment, along with the lacking rail infrastructure throughout the country.

In a winter that has seen unusually high temperatures, another instance of hazardous materials entering the environment is worrisome. Climate change continues to be pervasive, and the impacts on global weather patterns are becoming apparent. In 2022, an estimated 3.4 million Americans were displaced due to natural disasters. With global surface temperature and the amount of water vapor in the air increasing, storms appear to become more frequent and intense. This can be dangerous for citizens around the country.

A toxic derailment like the one in East Palestine poses a sudden, man-made environmental threat. Local ecosystems can get disturbed, plants and animals could die and the entire way of life can be altered for residents. With all of the commercial trade that happens throughout Connecticut, it is entirely possible that something such as this happens here. The threat of toxic substances always remains a worry, like when a group of toxic chemicals popped up in some of Connecticut’s water supplies in 2022.

Beyond the environmental impact, the derailment in Ohio reflects the country’s bad railroad system. The U.S. has averaged 1,704 train derailments per year since 1990, with a majority of those being low consequence accidents. However, regulations were rolled back in 2017 for trains transporting hazardous materials.

These regulations removed the requirement for trains with hazardous materials to have air brakes. Though it did not appear to be the issue in East Palestine, it reflects a general disregard for railway improvements both commercially and with transport trains, especially as upgrades such as high-speed rail continues to lag behind other countries around the world.

While East Palestine residents were still figuring out whether it was safe for them to return home, another train derailment took place on Thursday, this time just outside Detroit. The train was also carrying hazardous materials, though that car was able to remain on the tracks.

Accidents happen, but this is turning into a trend that is both concerning and dangerous. It is time for the country to shine a light on its rail travel in hopes to not only improve that aspect of our infrastructure, but also to avoid such toxic derailments.