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East Palestine train derailment disaster 6 months later: the devastating impacts of toxic vinyl chloride

A group of people from the Unisty Council sitting around a conference table with Senator Vance

UPDATE (September 21, 2023): President Biden issued an Executive Order, announcing that FEMA would “designate a Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator to oversee long-term recovery efforts in the affected communities and conduct a comprehensive assessment of unmet needs of the affected communities in recovering from the derailment beyond the cleanup work directed by EPA.”

UPDATE (August 7, 2023): Following these meetings, Senator Brown sent a letter to President Biden and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell urging approval of the Ohio Governor’s request for a Major Disaster Declaration, which would make additional federal resources available.

On the evening of Friday February 3, 2023, dozens of cars on a 150 car Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, OH—a tiny town a stone’s throw from the OH/PA state line. Five of the derailed cars contained 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride – a chemical identified as a carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Four cars of polyvinyl chloride plastic also derailed. The cars burned in uncontrolled conditions for several days, making it possible that dioxins and related chlorinated substances were formed and released into the communities surrounding the disaster site.

Today, six months later, the community is still reeling from the effects of this environmental and public health disaster.  Last week, Toxic-Free Future’s communications director Stephanie Stohler and I were privileged to support community members from the East Palestine area who drove six hours to meet with members of Congress and their staff. Their mission was straightforward: to bring their community’s story of these devastating impacts and their continuing needs directly to members of Congress.

East Palestine’s Unity Council visits Capitol Hill 

Meeting with Senator Brown and Unity Council. Photo by Toxic-Free Future.

In meeting after meeting, Jami Wallace, co-president of the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment, opened the discussion by saying, “We’re not okay.” She recounted the number of residents still unable to return to their homes, the financial hardships they are facing, as well as continued health challenges so many are experiencing. Participants explained and showed pictures of recurring rashes, lesions, and bloody noses endured by themselves, their loved ones, and their children. Specifically, East Palestine residents are calling for a disaster declaration, increased testing, and relocation of residents.

Senator Carper with Unity Council. Photo by Toxic-Free Future.

While the last day before the August recess is traditionally a difficult day for representatives and senators to take meetings in-person, the group from East Palestine was able to meet with 10 offices including face-to-face meetings with five senators, two representatives, and with staff for three more Senate offices.

The group met with Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance, presenting a letter sent to EPA Administrator Michael Regan expressing concerns about dioxin sampling at the site and the need for indoor air sampling for other contaminants of concern.

Unity Council Vice President Hilary Flint from Enon Valley, PA led meetings with Senator John Fetterman and with staff for Senator Bob Casey, to discuss the need for a disaster declaration from the Biden Administration. On July 5, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine requested that President Biden issue a Major Presidential Disaster Declaration, which would provide the community with needed assistance.

Meeting with Senator Markey and Unity Council. Photo by Toxic-Free Future.

Representative Bill Johnson (OH-06), who represents East Palestine in Congress and chairs the Environment, Manufacturing, and Critical Minerals Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee  met with East Palestine residents Daren Gamble and Tamara Freeze. Tamara manages a store in East Palestine and lives at “ground zero.”  She has not been relocated.  Daren has been relocated, but returns to look after  the home that has been in his family for 60 years.

East Palestine’s Unity Council members were also able to bring their case to Delaware Senator Tom Carper, chair of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, chair of the Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee of the EPW Committee. They also met with staff for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who chairs the Subcommittee on Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight of the Senate EPW Committee. They later met with Rep. Ro Khanna (CA-17) and officials at the EPA.

Toxic-Free Future and the Ohio train derailment disaster 

As we walked down the hall, EPW Chair Tom Carper asked me about Toxic-Free Future’s connection to the East Palestine group. Excellent question. 

I explained to him that the disaster in East Palestine is a reminder of the danger of making, transporting, using, and disposing of the chemicals in plastics, especially polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. PVC is widely considered to be the most toxic plastic from production to use to disposal. It’s most commonly used in building materials like PVC plastic piping and vinyl siding.

In the aftermath of the February derailment, we joined with more than 100 local, state, and national groups in a letter urging the U.S. EPA to require thorough testing for dioxins – one of the most toxic chemicals known to humankind. As we know, vinyl chloride is used to make PVC plastic products and packaging, and the derailment provided a window into the impacts of this cancer-causing chemical on communities across the country.

While East Palestine is enduring an ongoing environmental health crisis in the wake of February’s disaster, communities across the country are in danger. What we need now is for governments and companies to adopt comprehensive safer chemicals policies to reduce and eliminate the production, use, and disposal of toxic chemicals like vinyl chloride and plastics like PVC and advance the use of safer chemicals and materials.

As we highlighted in our April 2023 report, PVC Poison Plastic, the pollution resulting from this disaster is not an isolated incident. Plastics are polluting our world, with communities across the country exposed regularly to the same dangerous chemicals and plastic that burned in the Ohio train derailment. 

The unsafe chemicals used to make plastics are produced, stored and transported through communities across the country. And the manufacturing process alone released 414,803 pounds of vinyl chloride to the air in a single year, harming the surrounding communities.

Toxic-Free Future urges governments and companies to adopt comprehensive safer chemicals policies to:

  • reduce and eliminate the production, use, and disposal of toxic chemicals like vinyl chloride and plastics like PVC and
  • advance the use of safer chemicals and materials.

We don’t have to live with PVC plastics and cancer-causing vinyl chloride.