Making Sense of the Ohio Train Derailment

Just before 9 p.m. on February 3, 38 rail cars tumbled off main track one in East Palestine, Ohio. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the train car that initiated the accident had a bad wheel bearing. 

NTSB investigators have identified and examined the rail car that initiated the derailment. Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment. The wheelset from the suspected railcar has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination. The suspected overheated wheel bearing has been collected and will be examined by engineers from the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, D.C. 

Of the 20 rail cars containing hazardous materials, a whopping 11 left the tracks. The derailed cars included five rail cars with flammable vinyl chloride, a car with combustible liquid ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, combustible liquid ethylhexyl acrylate, a flammable gas called isobutylene, a flammable liquid called butyl acrylates, and two cars that normally contained benzene but were listed as empty.

The train car containing butyl acrylates “lost entire load (spill & fire).” WTRF news in Ohio reported on February 14 that the city of Steubenville (46 miles to the south) found butyl acrylate in the municipal water intake. A number of cars that were not derailed ended up damaged and/or leaking. Two tank cars containing petroleum lube oil lost their entire load. The tank car containing propylene glycol “lost most of load.” 

The EPA established a drinking water safety limit of .025 parts per billion (one-fortieth of a billion) for vinyl chloride. In other words, it takes 40 billion gallons of water to dilute one gallon of vinyl chloride before its concentration is considered sufficiently low to be used for drinking water. For reference, the Ohio River, which passes just just 20 miles south of the accident, carries 180 billion gallons of water each day. A typical train tank car can hold more than 31,000 gallons. Thus, if just one of the cars containing vinyl chloride were to spill into the Ohio River, it would be sufficient to render 1,240,000 billion gallons undrinkable. More than 5 million people rely on the Ohio River as a source of drinking water.

A review of the list of impacted cars does not indicate that any of the cars containing vinyl chloride lost their loads due to a breach or leak. Each entry contains the note, “car did not leak/cars vent product through the PRD and ignited/vent and burn performed.” At some point, the railroad intentionally vented and ignited all of the train cars containing vinyl chloride. Why? Why burn 155,000 gallons of a toxic chemical if the train cars containing them were not breached?

As it burns, vinyl chloride transforms into phosgene and hydrogen chloride. A 15 minute exposure of air contaminated with more than .2 parts per million of phosgene is considered unsafe. Children are particularly vulnerable to phosgene gas. If all five railcars containing vinyl chloride are being burned, this amounts to approximately 155,000 gallons of precursor to phosgene. This explains the enormous plume of dark smoke that photographs and videos show billowing from the wrecked train cars and a nearby trench used as an improvised burn pit.

However, there is good news. Phosgene gas, according to the CDC, is “unlikely to contaminate water because it breaks down rapidly upon contact with water to produce hydrochloric acid and carbon dioxide.” If this is true, the decision to burn the vinyl chloride must have been justified to avoid a much larger water contamination disaster. Also, there have not yet been any deaths attributed to the release of toxic materials. But pictures and videos show livestock and wildlife dying in large numbers.

Tensions are high. On February 8, police arrested a news reporter for broadcasting as the governor delivered remarks. Prosecutors declined to prosecute but the arrest nevertheless has raised concerns about press freedom in the wake of government-directed censorship scandals. But non-legacy media have played a huge role in prompting official action and transparency. Tik-Tok influencer Nick Drom, for example, has recorded several valuable videos synopsizing highly technical information as it is released. He reported that, under pressure from the public, officials have actually accelerated the release of information when compared to past accidents.

Some have suggested that the accident stemmed from railroads cutting costs in safety-related measures. As noted by the Hill

In the aftermath of the crash, railroad union leaders were quick to connect it to an issue they’ve warned about for years: that railroad layoffs and reliance on clockwork, inflexible scheduling were running them ragged and leading to disaster . . . The question of scheduling is a particularly divisive one. Last year, Congress voted to force union workers to accept a deal with railroad companies that gave them virtually no ability to take unscheduled sick time—and then narrowly voted down a plan that would have forced the companies to give sick time anyway. 

But others have questioned whether the bad bearing could have resulted from an act of sabotage. The “conspiracy theory” calls to mind recent arrests for sabotage of electrical facilities. 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has drawn condemnation for waiting nearly 10 days before issuing a public comment on the disaster. Like many in the media, Buttigieg found himself fixated on the recent Chinese balloon incursion. Buttigieg did not mention the Ohio disaster during his appearances on Sunday talk shows on February 5, two days after the crash continued to burn. 

Although Buttigieg flew 18 times on taxpayer-funded private jets since taking office, he has not, as of the time of writing this, visited the site of the disaster.

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About Adam Mill

Adam Mill is a pen name. He is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and works in Kansas City, Missouri as an attorney specializing in labor and employment and public administration law. He graduated from the University of Kansas and has been admitted to practice in Kansas and Missouri. Mill has contributed to The Federalist, American Greatness, and The Daily Caller.

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