On Friday, February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train moving through Ohio derailed in the city of East Palestine. While the definitive cause is still being investigated, reports indicate that 38 cars, including 11 carrying hazardous materials, derailed from a 150-car train with many damaged by fire. Subsequently, officials initiated a controlled release and burn of hazardous materials. This has resulted in mass speculation, widespread concern, and many news reports about health hazards and ecological devastation.
Investigators are still reviewing the cause of the derailment. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the first car to derail had “what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment.” The exact impact of the derailment itself is still being uncovered. Equally unknown at this stage is the impact of the smoke, fumes, and toxins entering the atmosphere, water streams, and ground. But it is important to separate these two phenomena from one another.
The train derailment may have ultimately been caused by material failure (or a combination of human error, equipment malfunction, or track deficiency). This would explain what led train cars to divert from the track. The investigation may also reveal the exact timeline and interactions of the train cars and how they settled once the train stopped moving. The resulting fire would be included in this investigation.
By most accounts, the situation then settled into one of mitigation and damage control, with some fire persisting multiple days and some possible initial level of releases. There was a period of days between the train’s initial derailment and the later decision to release hazardous materials into excavated trenches near the tracks and begin a controlled burn. This was intended to prevent the risk of an explosion. Importantly, however, there was no uncontrolled explosion resulting from the derailment. The freight cars and tankers appear to be up to the Department of Transportation standard for withstanding an impact. The NTSB reported a day after the incident that at least one car carrying vinyl chloride was “releasing its contents intermittently through a pressure relief valve as designed.”
This still left officials with a concern that the load within the cars may rupture. It is a counterfactual at this point to ask what would have happened without the release and burn. It is possible that the cars could have been recovered or the hazardous materials transferred safely, but also possible that a devastating eruption would have occurred that would have sent shrapnel into neighboring communities. But the fact is that the derailment was step one, the mitigation was step two, and the release and burn was step three.
Freight trains get a lot of media and public attention when things go wrong. By and large, they transport material across the country by the millions of miles without incident. While derailments do occur, they often result in minimal impact or the impact is the result of subsequent action or inaction. When the dust settles, the parties at fault must be held accountable. That will include the railroad for whatever part they had in the initial derailment, and the leaks and environmental issues that came from the derailment itself, but it is important for policymakers and officials to ensure they properly separate the stages of this incident and treat the secondary burn as its own component of the crisis.
The billowing clouds and hazardous releases were not the direct result of a train derailment, but a secondary and intentional action by officials. Whether that was prudent is still to be determined.
Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.