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What if? | Ohio train derailment leaves more questions than answers


Photo by K. Gerard Painter Jr. for Pittsburgh Media Partnership; A view of the train tracks running through East Palestine, Ohio. where a Feb. 3 derailment of Norfolk Southern cars carrying hazardous materials occurred. Fifty train cars were impacted by the incident.

By Elizabeth Perry


Last month’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, released toxic chemicals into the air and the Ohio River stoking local worries about the possible environmental fallout here, and the potential of a similar accident happening in our area.


Coraopolis, McKees Rocks, Neville Island, West End, Robinson (Groveton) and Stowe all have major railways passing directly through them along the Ohio River.


Another smaller rail spur travels along Chartiers Creek and passes city neighborhoods and the towns of Crafton, Ingram, Thornburg, Rosslyn Farms and Carnegie.


“There’s a lot of rail traffic, there’s a lot of industrial stuff going on. People need to know,” said Clifford Lau, an adjunct professor at Duquesne University and local environmental activist.


Local emergencies

On Feb. 3, a 150-car train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. Fifty of the cars were impacted in the crash, and more than 2,000 people were evacuated. “Cars containing vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether are known to have been and continue to be released to the air, surface soils, and surface waters,” according to a letter from the Environmental Protection Agency.


At a Feb. 8 meeting of the Coraopolis Borough Council, resident Trevor Reed voiced his worries.


“Given the events this past week in East Palestine, Ohio with the major train derailment, there’s been a lot of discussion around town and mentioned on social media a few times, what if anything is the borough’s emergency plan, especially given train derailments,” Reed said.

Coraopolis Volunteer Fire Chief Charles Spencer said the borough had an emergency plan in place, and Emergency Management Coordinator Larry Byrge, a volunteer firefighter and the Coraopolis Fire Marshal is familiar with and has access to the plan, as well. Allegheny County Emergency Services would also be called into any effort.


Matthew Brown, Chief Fire Marshal for Allegheny County and director of the PA Region 13 Task Force, said the county is alerted to and monitors emergencies in the 130 municipalities in Allegheny County and beyond.


Each one of those 130 municipalities has an emergency management coordinator, who receives training and resources through the county.


Allegheny is one of the host counties for the PA Region 13 task force, a coalition of 14 counties that meet on a monthly basis to help coordinate training, equipment and other resources in order to effectively respond to emergencies. Brown noted theirs was one of the first emergency task forces in the country, pre-dating the 9/11 tragedy.


“The Pennsylvania Region 13 Task Force has a history of coordinated planning and protection that started as the Urban Area Working Group in the 1990s,” according to its website.

Photo by K. Gerard Painter Jr. for Pittsburgh Media Partnership; In addition to air testing, the Feb. 3 derailment has prompted Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to conduct independent water sampling to monitor contamination risks for volatile organic compounds. Sample collection from private well water sites in Pennsylvania began Feb. 21 for residents within two miles of the crash site. Concerned residents with private water supply who are beyond the two-mile radius can request testing by calling (412) 442-4000.

Brown said Allegheny County was monitoring the East Palestine derailment from the moment it started.


"We train for an all-hazards approach because, unfortunately, they all have the potential to play out like you're seeing in Ohio," Brown said.


Allegheny County has responded to train-related disasters before. On April 11, 1987, two Conrail trains sideswiped and released phosphorous oxychloride in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh.


The incident forced the evacuation of 16,000 people. There were no deaths associated with the incident, Brown said. On Jan. 31, 2005, in East Deer, two overturned train cars released hydrogen fluoride. There were no fatalities associated with that incident, either, Brown said.


The county also responded to a derailment in Harmar, in May of 2022, which poured petroleum distillate into the environment.


Brown said he felt the current disaster would not have a lasting impact in the local area.


“We continue to watch and monitor, but we have no concerns,” Brown said.


In Stowe Township, Mike Stepek Sr., fire chief for the Presston Volunteer Fire Department, said the emergency management coordinator pre-plans sites for people to go to and disperse information in a time of crisis. At this time, his son Mike Stepek Jr. is the coordinator for the city of McKees Rocks. Naturally, in a disaster, it would be up to fire, police and EMS to evacuate the area.


“We have had situations. In the 1980s we had a styrene tanker on the other side of the McKees Rocks Bridge towards the McKees Rocks Plaza,” Stepek said.


Hazmat was set up in the fire hall and the department helped evacuate a half-mile radius around the accident site.


“Long time ago but it’s ingrained in my mind,” Stepek said.

What’s inside?

There is no reporting mechanism for residents as to what is being transported right next to them every day by rail. Local officials are not informed daily of what’s passing through their municipalities, not even the first responders who have to deal with accidents.


Stepek said at accident scenes, first responders must look for placards designating hazardous materials on the outside of trains.


“Unfortunately, like when you have an accident like East Palestine, you can’t always see those placards, so you have to rely on the manifest in the engine, same thing with a truck, the truck driver with the cab, should have a manifest in his trailer,” Stepek said. “You don’t know before you get there.”


Jeff Landis, representative for the EPA in the mid-Atlantic region, said the agency wants to change federal law regarding this issue.


“Quite frankly they want to work through congress, to make sure these state-to-state transports are reported ahead of time so our response can be better,” Landis said.


Landis elaborated, saying from state to state there should be a much more stringent reporting process so that people know what products are being shipped across state lines, not only the components but the health impacts and risks of such cargo.


“You can’t identify cars when they’re in flames,” Landis said.

CSX

CSX owns and maintains a mainline through Coraopolis, McKees Rocks, Robinson and Stowe. Requests for an interview with the company which is based in Jacksonville, Florida were not returned.


In 2013, CSX proposed building an Intermodal facility in McKees Rocks to house freight. Ground broke on the project. In 2017, CSX opened an Intermodal Terminal in Stowe, then closed it in less than three years. They entered into a lease agreement with Royal Dutch Shell.

Trains transporting material to and from the recently opened Shell Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex, known locally as the Cracker Plant, in Beaver County pass through the area. In February, the Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Agency fined the Shell plant for exceeding its 12-month rolling emissions total in the span of a single month. A request for comment from the company went unanswered.

Pittsburgh area

Right across town, in the City of Pittsburgh and Swissvale, Norfolk Southern is in the process of gaining permission to raise bridges in order to double stack train cars, allowing them to carry twice as much material as before according to a section of the railway's website.


“Pittsburgh has approved the double back of the rails, so they can push bigger train cars through,” Lau said.


According to Rail Pollution Pittsburgh, Norfolk Southern is in the process of doubling the length of its trains traveling through the area from the current one-and-a-half miles to three miles, and there are fourteen 90-degree turns (three of which are within one-and-a-half miles of each other) along the proposed route through the city to the East End. Longer, taller trains traversing this “zig-zag pattern” increase the likelihood of a derailment, the organization said.


Brown said he hadn’t seen train companies double stack hazardous materials, but “there could be potentially hazardous materials in those boxes anyway.”

Environmental impact

Though our area was not directly under the dangerous plume of smoke emitted during the East Palestine derailment and our portion of the river upstream, environmental impact may still be felt.


“Ground pollution is very local. Air pollution is global. The Fukushima nuclear power plant made it all the way across the Pacific Ocean. We should all be concerned,” Lau said.


Deb Smit is the communications manager for the BREATHE Collaborative, a coalition of citizens, environmental advocates, public health professionals and academics working in and around the Pittsburgh area to improve air quality.


She said the PurpleAir monitors used locally by the BREATHE project are designed to detect diesel oxidation catalysts and particulates, not the toxins which were released in the train crash.


This leaves local environmental groups at a loss in determining the impact the collision may have had on local air, but Smit stressed her main worries were with the residents in the immediate East Palestine and Beaver County area.


BREATHE made the following statement via press release, “What needs to happen is a more integrated and well-communicated response that tells people where they can go for key facts, information and assistance that is not dependent upon Norfolk Southern, the cause of the incident in the first place and an entity that has direct interests in influencing an outcome that minimizes their liabilities.”


This is an issue, as the EPA has acknowledged Norfolk Southern has taken the lead in testing the area for contaminants, causing critics to worry the information surrounding the crash has been tainted.


“Right now there’s just an information vacuum,” Patrick Campbell with local air quality group GASP (Group Against Smog Pollution) said.


Heather Hulton VanTassel, executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, said her organization sampled the water quality at Little Beaver Creek in Ohio with the intention of comparing the certified results with data provided by the Ohio and Pennsylvania EPA.


“We don’t think the communities’ lived experiences are matching up that everything is safe to breathe and drink. We don’t think these blanket statements are adequate when you compare what the community’s experiencing,” VanTassel said.


VanTassel said McKees Rocks, Coraopolis and Stowe were "lucky" a derailment didn't happen regionally, but it could. She mentioned the Harmar Township Norfolk Southern train derailment. In 2018, a Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred in Pittsburgh’s South Side, pouring fuel and plastic pellets into the Ohio River, Lau said.


In addition to train traffic, our area has crumbling, aging infrastructure, Vantassel said, which is a volatile situation when combined with the transport of hazardous materials. The recent collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh is a keen example of the danger.


VanTassel said water pollution could possibly occur from the crash if wind carried ash from the site to our area. At this point, without further testing, the danger is unknown, VanTassel said.


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