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“Above all else, show the data.” – Edward R. Tufte
On November 30, 2012, a freight train operated by Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) derailed while traveling over a movable bridge in Paulsboro, New Jersey, a small town located across the Delaware River and a few miles south of Philadelphia. As the crow flies, the accident occurred just 2.5 miles from Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), substantially elevating the stakes involved.
Of the 82 freight cars being hauled, 55 were carrying hazardous materials, 15 of which contained vinyl chloride. Three of the cars loaded with vinyl chloride ended up in Mantua Creek beneath the bridge, and one of those experienced a full rupture, releasing 20,000 gallons of the toxic gas directly into the air. According to a detailed accident investigation report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), 28 residents sought medical assistance for potential exposure to the chemical and as many as 680 people were evacuated. The NTSB also criticized the lax oversight that allowed more than a dozen first responders to be directly exposed to the chemical as they worked the scene (emphasis added throughout):
“Contributing to the consequences of the accident was the failure of the incident commander to implement established hazardous materials response protocols for worker protection and community exposure to the vinyl chloride release.”
Chemical spills on this scale occur far too frequently and can be devastating to the residents directly involved. They also present a serious challenge for government officials, reporters, and the general public as they grapple to understand and communicate the true risks such incidents present. In the Paulsboro incident, we note that hundreds of local residents (and at least 15 first responders) sued Conrail over the derailment, undoubtedly with significant justification. On the other hand, Philadelphia International Airport was not evacuated as a result of the accident, and tens of thousands of passengers went about their travels, likely unaware of the unfolding situation just a few miles away.
The enigmatic nature of such events flows from the fact that each of the following statements can be true: it is unacceptable that we ship so much in the way of toxic chemicals by rail in this country; when accidents like this happen, the consequences can be deadly serious at the local level; and, the risks to the public drop precipitously once you leave the immediate area. In the Conrail event, the main pollutant (vinyl chloride) was a volatile gas that quickly drifted away, dropping below levels of concern in a relatively short period.
It can be difficult to mentally model volumetric dilution, so consider this admittedly simple visual: a cube of gas with 1-mile-long sides dispersed into a 10-mile cube of air is not a 10x dilution, it is a 1,000x dilution. Such is the nature of measurements that scale to the power of three: an increase in length by a factor of ten yields a thousandfold dilution. A factor of 100 yields a millionfold. As the vinyl chloride dissipated into ever-increasing volumes of air, the local concentration quickly fell to levels indistinguishable from zero.
It is through this lens that we turn our attention to a similar – albeit in some ways more serious – train derailment that occurred on Friday, February 3 near the small town of East Palestine, Ohio. Here, a 52-car freight train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed, with 20 cars listed as having hazardous materials on board. Of those, five were carrying vinyl chloride, the same molecule of concern in the Paulsboro derailment. For a variety of reasons, the accident has touched off a bit of a national panic, with many news publications referring to the incident as “Ohio’s Chernobyl.” What actually occurred here, what are the true regional and national consequences, and is the ongoing media frenzy justified? Let’s dig in.
We begin by stating the obvious: if we were living within miles of the accident site, we would be furious, scared, hesitant to return home, and seeking legal counsel to sue the living daylights out of Norfolk Southern. To be forced out of your home and condemned to forever wondering whether the air you breathe or the water you drink might be making you sick are severe violations. Victim compensation and corporate accountability should be swiftly delivered. If you live nearby and you are reading this piece, every bit of angst you feel is utterly appropriate.
For the rest of the country, let’s take a step back and dig into what has transpired. For this exercise, we will rely heavily on the extraordinarily detailed resource page put up by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shortly after the event began. The site represents the agency’s best efforts to be as transparent and timely as possible in releasing information to the public.
Before proceeding, we need to address the fact that there are many on social media who are convinced the government is somehow covering up the severity of this event – hence the hyperbolic and totally irresponsible references to Chernobyl. In our experience, the EPA would not look to minimize the severity of an industrial accident of this type. Quite the opposite. For the rest of this piece, we will take their reports, measurements, and commentary at face value. To do otherwise is to assume the EPA would fabricate complex technical data on the fly to deceive the public and protect the very corporate interests they otherwise infuriate with their harsh oversight on a daily basis.
The most important document on the EPA’s website is the full accounting of each of the 52 derailed cars. The two-page PDF file details what was in each car and what happened to them during the accident. Twenty-seven cars suffered no major damage or significant leaks, and one is listed as having an unknown status. Let’s systematically walk through the other 24:
Two hoppers of solid polyethylene were consumed in the initial fire shortly after the derailment. Polyethylene is the major component of trash bags and plastic buckets. Nobody would recommend getting too close to such a fire, but the environmental damage here is minimal.
Four hoppers of solid polyvinyl were consumed in the initial fire. Polyvinyl is the major component in PVC plumbing pipes available for purchase at your local hardware store. While its combustion fumes are certainly more toxic than those observed with polyethylene, essentially every major home fire in the US results in significant burning of PVC pipes. Unfortunate for sure, but not a catastrophe.
One hopper of semolina, a coarsely milled durum wheat, was consumed by the initial fire. This is the functional equivalent of burning wood.
One box car of medical-grade cotton balls was consumed by the initial fire.
One box car of sheet steel is listed as being consumed by the initial fire, although it is unclear to us how sheet steel burns. We suspect this material was damaged by the surrounding fire to the point where it could not be commercially salvaged.
One box car of frozen vegetables was consumed by the initial fire.
One hopper of something called “powder flakes” was partially burned, and the fire is noted as having been extinguished.
One tank car of propylene glycol was breached, and most of the load was spilled into the local environment. Propylene glycol is the dominant ingredient in aircraft deicing fluids, a substance routinely and openly sprayed onto aircraft packed with passengers at major airports across the country. It is also a common ingredient in many processed foods.
One tank car spilled an unknown amount of ethylhexyl acrylate. This highly reactive monomer is used in the production of many household adhesives. The material is considered moderately hazardous and is readily biodegradable.
Two tank cars of petroleum lube oil were spilled. As the name suggests, this product is derived from the refining of oil. As far as oil spills go in the US, two tank cars worth is relatively inconsequential.
One tank car of diethylene glycol was fully breached and a second lost at least part of its load to the local environment. Although the compound has historically been used in criminal poisoning, according to this study: “Diethylene glycol is readily biodegradable and unlikely to bioaccumulate. Diethylene glycol has low potential to adsorb to soil and sediment. Diethylene glycol is of low toxicity concern to aquatic organisms.”
One tank car of butyl acrylate was either lost to the local environment or consumed in the initial fire. This compound has low acute toxicity.
One tank car of polypropylene glycol was breached and spilled into the local environment. This material is considered to be relatively benign.
If you are keeping track, we have accounted for all rail cars involved in this derailment except for the five that contained vinyl chloride. Given their prominent role in the media narrative observed in the past few days, these five deserve special treatment. Although none of the five rail cars containing the now infamous substance were damaged by the initial derailment and fire, in the days after the accident, local officials became increasingly concerned that the material could explode in an uncontrolled fashion. Given the circumstances, the decision was made to isolate the cars and implement a controlled burn. Here’s a quote from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s office announcing the decision ahead of time:
“Following new modeling information conducted this morning by the Ohio National Guard and U.S. Department of Defense, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro are ordering an immediate evacuation in a one-mile by two-mile area surrounding East Palestine which includes parts of both Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The vinyl chloride contents of five rail cars are currently unstable and could potentially explode, causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes. To alleviate the risk of uncontrollable shrapnel from an explosion, Norfolk Southern Railroad is planning a controlled release of the vinyl chloride at approximately 3:30 p.m. today.”
Among the aspects most irresponsibly reported on the incident relates to phosgene, a minor byproduct of vinyl chloride combustion. In high concentrations, phosgene is a dangerous poison, but this study of the combustion profile of vinyl chloride found it to be present in very low quantities:
“By means of a variety of analytical techniques, the combustion profile of vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) has been determined. This profile includes flame temperatures, soot content, and a combustion gas analysis. Depending on the amount of VCM-air premixing prior to combustion, the temperature of a VCM flame ranges from 950° to 1466°C. Similarly, the soot or unburned carbon content of a VCM flame varies from 3 to 6 weight percent. An analysis of the combustion gases from VCM reveal the following composition: HC1 27,000 ppm; CO2 58,100 ppm; CO 9500 ppm; phosgene 40 ppm; and VCM trace. From a hazard standpoint, the gross quantity of hydrogen chloride is the main source of danger in a VCM fire.”
For clarity, 40 ppm (parts per million) is equivalent to 0.004% of the composition.
Even though this, and all information quoted in this piece, is readily available to any reporter with access to Google, countless references to the dangers presented by phosgene are giving the public anxiety over the decision to execute the controlled burn. To pick one example from many dozens, a Newsweek story, titled Did Control Burn of Toxic Chemicals Make Ohio Train Derailment Worse?, includes the following sentence: “Phosgene is a deadly gas that was used in chemical warfare during World War I.” The report goes on to quote – and we kid you not – a TikTok video from an “entrepreneur” for more insight.
Where do things stand now? For the answer, we return to the EPA’s incident response website and quote from a statement that was widely available the same day Newsweek published its report:
“On the evening of Feb. 13, U.S. EPA discontinued air monitoring for phosgene and hydrogen chloride community air monitoring. After the fire was extinguished on Feb. 8, the threat of vinyl chloride fire producing phosgene and hydrogen chloride no longer exists. U.S. EPA will continue 24-hour community air monitoring for other chemicals of concern.
As of end of the day February 13th, U.S. EPA has screened indoor air at 396 homes, with 100 homes remaining, and 65 homes on the schedule for today.”
There are many well-documented reasons to question communications issued from government agencies these days – and the widespread alarm over the incident lays bare the chronic stress such distrust lets simmer under the surface for much of the population. If we have earned any credibility with our readership over these last two years of publication, please take this to heart: residents of Mississippi need not stock up on bottled water, at least not because of this.
That is not to say there isn’t a cause for nationwide upset here. As we will detail in a future piece, this incident demands a much-needed light be shined on the scandalous state of the US rail industry. That we even allow vinyl chloride to be shipped in this fashion is unnecessary and unacceptable. As few are aware, there are other, even more, dangerous materials on trains passing by residential neighborhoods every single day. It would take but a few simple rule changes to chemical industry regulation to alleviate much of this risk.
Stay tuned for more.