Norfolk Southern Railroad is the corporation responsible for the catastrophe in East Palestine, Ohio. In case you missed it, on Feb. 3, 2023, a train derailed in East Palestine and vented toxic vinyl chloride gas. The vented gas was intentionally set aflame and an enormous plume of black gas was visible from a commercial airliner flying over the region. A photograph taken from the airliner is vivid and terrifying in how large a scope of a disaster it was.
In addition to the vinyl chloride gas, other chemicals of concern at the site include phosgene and hydrogen chloride, which are released when vinyl chloride breaks down; butyl acrylate; ethylene glycol monobutyl ether acetate; and 2-ethylhexyl acrylate, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. All these chemicals can change when they break down or react with other things in the environment, creating a stew of potential toxins.
The vinyl chloride released by the derailment is a particular health hazard. Breathing or drinking vinyl chloride can cause a number of health risks including dizziness and headaches. People who breathe the chemical over many years may also experience liver damage. When vinyl chloride is exposed in the environment, it breaks down from sunlight within a few days and changes into other chemicals such as formaldehyde.
Erin Haynes, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Kentucky, has stated that the community of East Palestine faces serious health risks because, “The community is now exposed to a mixture of numerous petroleum-based volatile organic compounds, so it may not just be one, it could be the mixture of them,” that causes health problems. Professor Haynes has sought approval from her university’s Institutional Review Board to start a study in East Palestine to help give residents more information on their chemical exposures in air, water and soil.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates that approximately 3,500 fish died within one week of the chemical release just within an eight mile radius of the event. As chemicals and toxins from the event have traveled downstream into the Ohio River, multiple municipalities (including the city of Cincinnati) and multiple business have ceased drawing water from the river to avoid contaminating their water systems and equipment.
Norfolk Southern has promised $1 million to aid the community of East Palestine. Let me put that in perspective of the event and the size of the company. Norfolk Southern is a corporation valued at $53 billion. The $1 million promise includes $220,000 already spent on air packs for the East Palestine Fire Department so they could participate in controlling the burning of the hazardous chemicals being released during the derailment. It also includes purchasing “more than 100 air purifiers for the community” according to the company’s public relations press release. East Palestine is a community of over 5,000 people.
In 2022, Norfolk Southern spent $4.23 billion to purchase its own stock and drive up the price for its shareholders and executives. It also announced a program to buy up a full $15 billion in stock. That $1 million promised to the community represents just 0.02% of the money the company spent just on purchasing its own stock in 2022.
Norfolk Southern routinely spends multiple times as much in lobbying efforts to the government and in direct campaign contributions to candidates. Since FY 2000, the company has received approximately $40 million in subsidies from the government with about 25% of that from the federal government and about 75% from state governments. Last year the Biden Administration announced a $15.68 million grant to Norfolk Southern as part of its infrastructure bill. Norfolk Southern had $1.3 billion in income last quarter.
I think the rail company can afford to give a bit more help than they have so far…
John Judkins is a Greenfield attorney.