Train Derailment and Chemical Explosion Exposes Clear and Present Danger in Railway Safety
The recent derailment and explosion of a 50-car train carrying hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, OH – followed by a controlled burn that may have created even more toxic gas in the air – has been a wakeup call for citizens and public health officials as well as a reminder for resilience professionals about the dangers of freight rail accidents. To find out if your region is in an oil train blast zone, click here.
Thousands of East Palestine residents were evacuated as the controlled burn created a plume of toxic phosgene and hydrogen chloride gases across the region. While there have been no deaths, there are many concerns on how the possible air, ground and water pollution could affect residents’ health now and in the future.
The U.S. Federal Railroad Administration’s tracking of train accidents from 2018 to 2020 show derailments as by far the highest accident type, with 2,297 reported incidents, distantly followed by collisions at 249 in that period.
An estimated 25 million Americans live in an oil train blast zone. About 4.5 metric tons of toxic chemicals are shipped by rail each year, with about 12,000 such rail cars passing through populated areas every day. With that understanding, if the derailment had happened a few miles further east, it would have put tens of thousands of Pittsburgh residents at risk.
Worse yet, this is a risk that many have known and warned about for years, as a lack of oversight and questionable self-monitoring has led to severe cuts in the rail workforce.
“The Palestine wreck is the tip of the iceberg and a red flag,” said Ron Kaminkow, an Amtrak engineer and secretary for the Railroad Workers United, a non-profit labor group that coordinates with the nation’s rail unions. “If something is not done, then it’s going to get worse, and the next derailment could be cataclysmic.”
That’s not to say things aren’t already bad. The Pittsburgh region alone has seen eight train derailments over the last five years, due to hazards including a cracked track and a crossing collision with a dump truck.