Could toxic Ohio train derailment impact NJ?
nj.com March 4, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — A month after a freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, leading to a cleanup of spilled toxic chemicals and forcing tests for potential contaminants, questions still linger about what the longterm health impacts of the incident will be.
No one died in the Feb. 3 derailment but Ohio officials estimated 20 days after the incident that more than 43,700 animals within 5 miles were believed to have died in local waterways.
Alan Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern which owns the trains that derailed, is scheduled to appear before a Senate committee Thursday. Although the company initially vowed to clean up the contamination, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took over the operation last week after frustration over the federal response.
But as residents in Ohio and elsewhere in the country wait for more answers in the aftermath of the derailment, New Jerseyans a few states away may be wondering: Are we at risk here?
We spoke with experts, state officials as well as local advocates to find out what we know so far:
What were the chemicals released in the toxic Ohio derailment?
A Feb. 10 letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to Norfolk Southern states that roughly 20 of the approximate 150 train cars on their way to Conway, Pennsylvania, when the train derailed were carrying hazardous materials.
To avoid an explosion at the time of the accident, officials said Norfolk Southern carried out a controlled burn of some of the chemical cargo.
Materials known to be released included butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate — which depending on exposure can cause difficulty breathing, as well as irritation to the skin, eyes and impact the respiratory tract, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Also among the materials spilled was ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, which the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found in studies could irritate the nose, eyes, as well as induce headaches and vomiting with high exposure for a prolonged period.
Lastly, vinyl chloride was detected among the derailed cars. The carcinogen, which has been linked to a deadly form of liver cancer, was also found at the 2012 Paulsboro derailment in New Jersey.
Do we know if the chemicals spilled in Ohio have caused harm in New Jersey?
Officials in Pennsylvania, closer to Ohio, have so far not detected any air quality issues following the derailment, according to Caryn Shinske, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
“(The) Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection confirms that neither vinyl chloride nor byproducts of the burning of vinyl chloride have been detected in downwind air monitors in Pennsylvania at elevated levels during the accident through completion of destruction/removal of the material as compared to all other state-wide monitors,” Shinske said in a statement.
But the state is doing its own testing, she said.
Every six days air monitoring samples are collected in New Jersey and sent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for testing by a national laboratory, DEP officials said.
“Those test results are released quarterly. In the wake of the Ohio train derailment, DEP continues taking air samples every six days and has requested from the EPA lab an expedited report and special analysis of New Jersey’s collected air samples,” Shinske said. “Those results are not yet available.”
The Environmental Protection Agency did not immediately provide comment.
Can the Ohio toxic spill harm New Jersey?
Robert Laumbach, a physician at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said if New Jersey residents were not in the immediate vicinity of the chemical release and fire as the Ohio incident took place they should be OK.
Laumbach evaluated some of the first responders following the Paulsboro accident more than a decade ago and was hired by attorneys who were planning to sue Conrail on behalf of their clients, he said.
“Plumes of smoke and other air contaminants from the release and fire rapidly disperse on wind currents with mixing and diffusion in the air, all of which dilutes the concentration of chemicals rapidly to levels that are not a concern,” Laumbach added. “Reactive chemicals like vinyl chloride also rapidly degrade in the air over hours and days.”
Laumbach said residents can use an online tool called AirNow to monitor air quality. The tool was created through a partnership between numerous federal agencies, according to its website.
“Depending on the strength of the source — rate of smoke or chemical generation — the wind speed and direction and other factors, there may have been cause for concern in areas close to the derailment site,” Laumbach said. “But over 300 miles away in New Jersey, effects of the disaster on air quality would not be detectable or of concern regarding possible effects on health.”
Is it even possible New Jersey’s air could be impacted?
Russell Zerbo, an advocate at the Philadelphia non-profit, Clean Air Council, was also not aware of direct known impacts to air quality in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as of this week.
But he is still worried.
“The goal of (of air monitoring in our area) is to get an idea of general air quality — looking at average time and geography,” Zerbo said.
He added that increased testing for carcinogens — which there are dozens of and Ohio officials are still testing for locally there — would benefit residents.
Laumbach said that the air monitors that capture data for the AirNow map are located away from local sources, thus they capture the status of regional air as opposed to very local changes in air quality. An explainer on the AirNow website says the tool tests for particulate matter and sometimes for carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide.
According to the DEP, New Jersey is still waiting on more information on how our air could be impacted in other ways.
But Laumbach said he is doubtful New Jersey could be affected this far from the Ohio derailment.
“It is unlikely that significant effects on air quality would occur 20 miles away (in Pennsylvania), let alone hundreds of miles away in New Jersey,” Laumbach said.
As for some information online and shared on social media that New Jersey has or is soon in store for bad air quality as a result of the Ohio derailment, Laumbach called those claims “false.”
How else could the Ohio train derailment impact New Jersey residents?
New Jersey, like elsewhere in the country, has a “policy window,” said Christina Rosan, a geography and urban studies professor at Temple University.
“There’s a lot of research about ‘policy windows’ and a crisis like this is a policy window,” Rosan said. “It allows for places like New Jersey or Pennsylvania to question what has happened in Ohio and create policies to prevent these disasters from happening here.”
The Ohio derailment has renewed calls not to allow a Gibbstown terminal, also called the “LNG terminal,” to be put back on the table. The proposal has been on hold since permits needed to move it forward expired last year.
The freight train that derailed in Ohio had 150 cars — 38 of which crashed Feb. 3. The South Jersey proposal would mean two 100-car trains sending liquified natural gas 200 miles away by rail each day, said Sahana Rao, an attorney with nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council.
“It’s difficult to pin down an exact number because the radius of potential impacts from a derailment depends on what hazardous materials are being transported in the train,” Rao said. “For the Gibbstown LNG-by-rail proposal, we’ve calculated based on the radius of LNG fires/explosions and the proposed routes that about 1.9 million people live within range of potential impacts from an accident involving an LNG train — that’s in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey.”
Before a ban was lifted by the Trump administration in 2020, transporting liquified natural gas by rail was federally prohibited.
But reform, expanded regulations and increased oversight, which advocates have fought to achieve for years, is complicated by the rail transport of chemicals landing under federal jurisdiction.
On Wednesday, after a call from U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a new bipartisan legislation proposal from Ohio and Pennsylvania senators outlined a series of more stringent industry regulations.
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