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Ohio Hazmat Rail Disaster: 1 Year Later

Posted on 1/30/2024 by Roger Marks

This Saturday, February 3, marks one year since twenty rail cars carrying hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, left the tracks in East Palestine, OH. The derailment started a massive fire, displaced residents, and resulted in a large-scale release of hazardous chemicals. 

One year later, we look at actions taken in response to the derailment in East Palestine (and others like it) to determine what's been done to identify a root cause and prevent future derailments involving hazardous materials shipped by rail car.  

Immediate Aftermath and Cleanup

The train cars derailed on a Friday night and the chemical fire burned throughout the weekend, leading Ohio’s governor to issue a shelter-in-place order for about 5,000 residents of East Palestine.

Days after the derailment, on February 6, responders noticed a substantial change in temperature in one of the hazmat rail cars, a major cause for concern. In response, they performed a controlled “vent and burn” involving five rail cars containing vinyl chloride. This was done to relieve pressure inside the tank cars and “prevent a catastrophic explosion.” 

Ohio Hazmat Rail Disaster: 1 Year Later

As cleanup of the site progressed throughout February 2023, EPA issued a cleanup and liability order that requires the railroad to continue cleaning up the site and take responsibility for site security, air and water monitoring, cleanup of dust and debris, removal of all hazardous substances and contaminants, and address all releases or threats of releases. 

As of January 2024, the railroad estimated that costs to cleanup the East Palestine derailment site will exceed $1.1 billion.

Finding a Root Cause and Lessons Learned 

As with any accident of this kind, determining what caused it to happen is a crucial objective. After arriving on scene to investigate the derailment in East Palestine, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) identified a preliminary cause: 

“surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment.” 

On March 3, 2023, one month after the accident in Ohio, the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) issued the first of four 2023 Hazmat Safety Advisories related to hazardous materials carried by rail car. Advisory 2023-1 focused on detecting hot wheel bearings, which FRA cites as a contributing factor to five derailments since 2021, including the one in East Palestine. 

Three more safety advisories followed, each of which directly address recent hazmat train derailments. These warnings bring stakeholders’ attention to: 

  • Known concerns with certain tank cars used to transport flammable liquids.  
  • Common traits of six recent derailments, including train length and complexity.
  • The “potential complexities involved in operation of longer trains.”  

capitol building hazmat laws

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 

Following the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio’s two US Senators introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023 (S. 576), a bill directing US DOT to establish a range of new safety regulations for trains carrying hazardous materials. 

If made law, the bill will add requirements for rail carriers and/or shippers including: 

  • Advanced notifications and info sharing requirements for hazmat shipments.  
  • A minimum two-person crew for certain freight trains. 
  • Updated rail car inspection regulations. 
  • An audit of the Federal rail car inspection program. 
  • A shortened phase-out period for DOT-111 tank cars in flammable liquid service.

The bill would also increase the maximum civil penalty amount for hazmat rail violations—allowing DOT to assess a penalty as high as $1 million per day, per violation for a hazmat violation. For violations that result in death, serious illness, severe injury, an imminent hazard, or substantial destruction, the law authorizes a maximum civil penalty of $5 million per day, per violation.    

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 was heard in Senate committees throughout 2023 and was placed on the Senate’s “Legislative Calendar” in December, making it eligible for consideration on the Senate floor. Congressional representatives from Pennsylvania and New York introduced a related measure, H.R. 1674, in the US House. 

Potential EPA Risk Review of Vinyl Chloride

Vinyl chloride (CASRN 75-01-4), is one of five chemicals that EPA recently moved to prioritize for risk evaluation under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). 

When vinyl chloride is evaluated for risk under TSCA, EPA will likely determine that the chemical poses some unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. At that time, the law authorizes the agency to restrict manufacturing, processing, use, and/or distribution of the substance. 

New DOT Hazmat Rail Regulations

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is working to impose new requirements for hazmat rail transportation with a number of forthcoming rules: 

FAST ACT Requirements for Real-Time Train Consist Information (Details

This rule would implement a provision in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015, requiring railroads to create and maintain electronic records concerning hazardous materials on the train and provide these records to emergency responders and law enforcement. 

Advancing the Safety of Highway, Rail, and Vessel Transportation (Details)

PHMSA plans to amend some of its regulations related to specific modes of transportation. Revisions related to the rail mode will no doubt be informed by the incident in East Palestine and other similar derailments involving hazardous materials. 

Also in 2023, DOT suspended authorization to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) in rail tank cars. The authorization is suspended until mid-2025, or until DOT puts forth new regulations for LNG by rail. 

Moving Forward in 2024 

The hazmat train accident in East Palestine, OH was not the last one to occur in 2023. In June, for example, several cars carrying hazardous materials fell into the Yellowstone River when a bridge collapsed in Montana. In November, a freight train derailed in Kentucky and spilled molten sulfur chemicals into a creek. 

In June 2023, the National League of Cities launched an interactive map of all train derailments in the US (not just those involving hazardous materials). 

Since the nationally publicized hazmat derailment near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border one year ago, regulators and Congress have taken action to improve the safety of hazardous materials in rail transportation. Through FRA’s safety advisories and other public outreach, industry stakeholders are now alerted to several factors that contributed to derailments last year, and should be taking steps to address those. 

As 2024 moves forward, we are all hoping to experience substantially fewer hazmat rail incidents than we did in last year. 

Tags: hazardous materials, hazmat, incidents

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