Two chemical disasters in the past weeks have raised concerns about how the United States handles transportation infrastructure and environmental damage.
On February 3rd, a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Five cars carrying vinyl chloride, a toxic and flammable gas, were at high risk of exploding. In response, Governor Mike DeWine (he/him, R) issued an evacuation notice for East Palestine residents on February 6th. A controlled explosion was conducted to reduce of the risk of shrapnel being flung throughout the area. While no residents were hurt, the explosion released hazardous chemicals into the air and water.
Despite various claims on social media that DeWine had turned down federal aid for this disaster or that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had deemed Ohio “ineligible for aid,” the situation is being handled by both state and federal agencies. East Palestine residents have been given clearance to return, but many are still skeptical as to whether or not it is actually safe to do so. The EPA has monitored pollution levels and found that while they are currently higher than normal, they are not a risk in the short-term.
Less than two weeks after the train derailment in Ohio, a similar chemical spill occurred on Interstate 10 in Tucson, Arizona. Following a car crash involving the death of a tractor trailer driver, the trailer’s load of nitric acid caused the road to be shutdown, along with evacuations within half a mile and a stay in place order for the city of Tucson. This spill was not as disastrous as the one in Ohio; the situation was rectified over the course of two days, whereas the ramifications of the Ohio disaster are persistent.
At a February 23rd press conference, Jennifer Homendy (she/her), chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), called the train’s crash “one hundred percent preventable… we’ve never seen an accident that isn’t preventable. ” The NTSB found in its initial investigation that an overheated wheel axle detected too late caused the crash. Some have drawn a connection to a labor dispute in late 2022 and controversies over safety regulations. Rail workers throughout the country had threatened to strike, citing poor working conditions and suboptimal safety. While President Joe Biden (he/him, D) and then Labor Secretary Marty Walsh (he/him) negotiated a deal between workers and rail companies, many of the same regulations were left in place. In 2018, a federal safety regulation requiring more effective breaks on trains carrying hazardous materials was repealed.