Petrochemical derailment: Experts weigh in on supply chain hazards following Ohio disaster
27 Feb 2023 --- The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, US evidences that the plastics and petrochemical expansion necessitates infrastructure buildout and safer transportation of hazardous materials supplying to the packaging industry.
Amid ongoing cleanup efforts, PackagingInsights speaks to Dustin White, senior campaigner for Plastics & Petrochemicals at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), who is currently at the site.
“While much of the national conversation is centering on the deregulation of the rail industry, that’s only a part of the story,” White tells us.
“The entire plastics supply chain extends across the globe and each step comes with a unique set of risks to human and environmental health. Unless we address the underlying industry, accidents like what we see in East Palestine will continue.”
We also talk to John Beard Jr., who spent 38 years in the petrochemical industry working for ExxonMobil and is now the CEO at Port Arthur Community Action Network (PACAN), which represents marginalized US communities disproportionately affected by pollution in areas where petrochemicals are produced.
Earlier this month a Norfolk Southern freight train comprising roughly 150 rail cars derailed. Approximately 20 rail cars were listed as carrying hazardous materials – containing vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether.
Beard says, “incidents such as the Ohio derailment, and others since, highlight the inherent danger in shipping these extremely hazardous substances via rail. And while these same chemicals are needed in producing things we use every day, one has to ask, is it worth the hazard, the sacrifice suffered by real people, their families and the communities where chemical disasters occur?”
“We must find safer alternatives as we transition away from petrochemicals and their derivatives.”
White elucidates that it is not clear yet if there will be long-term medical monitoring, but the community is requesting it.
“They have been told it is ‘safe’ to return. However, residents continue to report that they are experiencing health issues – from rashes to difficulty breathing – and are expected to navigate the emergency response and healthcare systems independently.”
“This is a region with massive health care provider shortages with the closure of several hospitals and community health centers in the last couple of years. Workers at petchem facilities and along the petchem supply chain, as well as emergency responders, are always at risk.”
According to the February 26 update, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues real-time air monitoring and collecting air samples throughout the community. The agency is also testing for contamination in public and residential water streams.
The EPA issued a directive to Norfolk Southern on February 24 to accelerate the cleanup of the derailment site. “This directive is an important step in the transition from a state-led emergency response phase of the response to an EPA-led cleanup phase. EPA has decades of experience dealing with hazardous waste – both from cleaning up contaminated sites to regulating the landfills where it’s disposed of,” the agency shares.
Slew of chemicals
A known carcinogen, vinyl chloride is a colorless and flammable gas that produces polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic for packaging materials and various electronic, medical and construction products. Symptoms of exposure include drowsiness, disorientation, numbness and tingling of the extremities and nausea, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Authorities in Ohio decided the best course of action was a ‘controlled burn’ of the vinyl chloride, which would have produced large quantities of hydrogen chloride,” White details.
“When mixed with water, vinyl chloride becomes hydrochloric acid, a poisonous substance which causes immediate, severe tissue damage. Another possible byproduct of burning vinyl chloride is dioxin, which are also extremely toxic. Currently, no state or federal regulators are testing for dioxins in East Palestine.”
Butyl acrylate is a colorless liquid with a strong, fruity odor often used to produce various plastics, polymers, coatings and resins. According to the CDC, exposure to the chemical can cause irritation to the eyes and skin, rashes and breathing difficulties.
“In the days after the derailment, it has been detected in the Ohio River, prompting some towns and cities to close or move their public water intakes,” informs White.
A cargo manifest released by the EPA indicates that Norfolk Southern saw no signs of breach for isobutylene, a colorless gas used to produce plastics and paints.
Beard says, “All government agencies and Norfolk Southern bear responsibility for this incident in spite of work being done in response after the fact. There should be a recovery and resettlement plan for all affected residents and “cradle to grave” medical surveillance and long-term care. The cleanup alone won’t ‘heal the land’ or people’s lives and health.”
“The community should seek legal remedy to hold all accountable; without the threat of litigation, holding their feet to the fire will be next to impossible. Norfolk Southern will only do so much and no more. Think ‘Exxon Valdez’ [oil spill in Alaska, US in 1989].”
“Passing the buck”
White elaborates that Norfolk Southern was allowed to carry out the initial testing – not state or federal regulatory agencies. He points out that the rail service provider’s testing has been described as “sloppy.”
“So far, Norfolk Southern has contributed a paltry amount for local cleanup and evacuation efforts. The US government must use the full extent of its authority to ensure that polluters pay,” White slams.
“Much of what has been unfolding seems to be the proverbial ‘passing the buck.’ Emergency response on the federal level was delayed because Ohio governor Mike Dewine refused to declare a state of emergency.”
According to Beard, president Biden must declare a “climate emergency,” issuing an executive order mobilizing the federal government’s power to shift the economy away from fossil fuels, their derivatives and transition to clean, green energy and products which could replace toxic substances.
“The federal and state government must prioritize people over profit and strengthen regulations and enforcement that protect lives, health and property. Nor should governments allow the industry to write the rules,” says Beard.
Since the 1990s, Greenpeace USA has called for the accelerated phase-out of toxic materials like PVC because of the harm caused by its production, use and disposal.
“Right now, we are headed in the opposite direction with plastic packaging production increasing at an alarming rate, with other highly-destructive consequences including the contamination of virtually the entire planet, particularly the oceans,” adds Charlie Cray, senior strategist, Greenpeace USA.
“As an essential part of an aggressive ‘whole of government’ approach, the administration can push for ‘upstream’ provisions that eliminate plastic pollution at its source – particularly through the global plastic treaty currently being negotiated.”
Recommended course of action
Greenpeace, CIEL and PACAN representatives unanimously agree that there are several steps that policymakers and administration officials can take right now.
“The EPA is currently considering whether to classify discarded PVC as hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Such a designation would go a long way toward addressing PVC from cradle to grave,” says White.
Cray adds: “The US EPA is working on updating chemical disaster rules, due this August or September. However, EPA’s proposed rule last August fails to exercise its broad legal authority to require the substitution of hazardous chemicals with inherently safer chemicals or processes, known as inherently safer technology – one of the most effective ways to prevent chemical disasters.”
“If the Biden administration responds to this horrible disaster in East Palestine by undertaking [recommended] actions, the chances of another dangerous chemical ‘bomb train’ or Bhopal-like facility disaster [chemical gas tragedy in India in 1984] occurring will be drastically reduced, if not eliminated altogether.”
By Radhika Sikaria
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