“People just don’t sue doctors they really like.”  — Alice Burkin, plaintiff’s attorney

Nice doctors get sued less. On the other hand, “evil corporations” are far more likely to be sued for their mistakes, or as lawyers describe it, their “negligence.” And in the consciousness of many Americans, there are few corporations more categorically evil than railroads and chemical manufacturers. So, a derailment leading to the release of unquestionably hazardous chemicals into a community can be expected to prompt a visceral response.

That’s just what happened in East Palestine, Ohio. A train derailed, caught fire, and led to the evacuation of over a thousand residents. Lawsuits have already been filed.

What Happened?

A Norfolk Southern train consisting of three locomotives, 9 empty cars, and 141 loaded cars left the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis rail yard in Madison, Illinois, headed for Conway, Pennsylvania. Twenty of the cars were carrying hazardous chemicals. This included 14 cars loaded with vinyl chloride monomer, as well as cars loaded with butyl acrylate, ethyl hexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, isobutylene, and other flammable liquids.

At 8:54 p.m. on Friday, February 3, thirty-eight railcars in the train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, not far from the Pennsylvania state line. Some of those cars contained flammable liquids, which caught fire, damaging another 12 cars. Of the 50 cars involved in the derailment, nine were loaded with hazardous liquids. Another two were empty, but contained benzene residue.

Video from a plant about 20 miles west, in Salem, Ohio, shows sparks spraying from the undercarriage of one of the cars. (The NTSB suspects that the video shows a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure).

The fire continued to burn through the weekend before officials, fearful that there might be an explosion, decided to do a controlled burn on Monday, February 6.

Was a Controlled Burn Necessary?

The problem with a controlled burn is that it is, well, a burn. As conducted in an emergency response, it is not a burn through a carefully designed thermal oxidizer with 99.9% destruction efficiency. The controlled burn inevitably released some vinyl chloride vapor to the atmosphere. Perhaps worse, the combustion products of vinyl chloride include hydrogen chloride and phosgene. Hydrogen chloride readily dissolves in water to form hydrochloric acid. Sure, stomach acid is hydrochloric acid; nonetheless, hydrochloric acid is an aggressive corrosive. Phosgene, COCl2, was used as a weapon in World War I, and its effects were so awful that the international community agreed to ban the use of chemical weapons.

However, officials concluded that the hazard of burning the vinyl chloride was less than the hazard of a potential string of explosions.

The vinyl chloride rail cars were pressure vessels. The boiling point of vinyl chloride is 8°F, meaning that if producers want to ship it as a liquid, they must ship it under pressure. And the higher the design pressure of a vessel, the more the intense the explosion when it finally lets go.

Some early reports described the derailment as involving a fire and explosions. There were no explosions. But there was a fire. A big fire. The kind of fire that engulfs a vessel—in this case a rail car—vaporizing the liquid contents and causing the internal pressure to climb until it exceeds the burst pressure. The kind of fire that HazOps routinely consider when addressing pressure vessels. The kind of fire that requires the installation of a properly sized pressure relief device, which these rail cars had.

So, why the concern? Because vinyl chloride is not simply a flammable liquid. As described by the CDC on their Toxic Substances Portal’s Medical Management Guidelines for Vinyl Chloride, “vinyl chloride self-polymerizes explosively if peroxidation occurs (e.g., if heated, exposed to sunlight, or mixed with air and contaminants). Avoid contact with oxygen, strong oxidizing agents, aluminum, iron, and steel.” The property that makes vinyl chloride valuable—it’s ability to polymerize—is also a property that makes it dangerous.

What Didn’t Happen?

There were no explosions.

There were no fatalities.

While there were releases to the environment (the Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported that 7½ miles of stream were impacted, resulting in a fish kill of about 3,500 fish), people were not exposed to acutely toxic concentrations. The EPA screened almost 500 homes near the derailment and did not detect vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride in their testing.

Fingers Are Pointing

People are complaining of chemical odors. It’s not in their head. One of the chemicals released in the derailment was butyl acrylate. While its NIOSH recommended exposure limit is 10 ppm, its odor threshold is 0.035 ppm. Within a week of the derailment, businesses and residents of East Palestine filed federal lawsuits against Norfolk Southern. One lawsuit, filed on February 9, seeks to have Norfolk Southern set up health monitoring for everyone living within 30 miles of the derailment and is also seeking undetermined damages.

Some are pointing to the federal government, specifically to the rescission in 2017 of regulations requiring advanced braking systems. Advanced braking systems would stop all rail cars at the same time, instead of stopping rail cars one after another as conventional brakes do. This, despite evidence that it was a wheel bearing and axle failure that caused the derailment.

Some are pointing to the federal government, specifically to the failure of the infrastructure bill to adequately address railroad infrastructure.  This, despite the fact that the bill only passed in November 2021 and despite evidence that it wasn’t the railroad infrastructure that failed, but a rail car.

Most fingers, however, are pointing to Norfolk Southern. The pointing is so angry and threatening that Norfolk Southern withdrew from a town hall held in East Palestine on Wednesday, February 15, citing concerns about the safety of their personnel attending the meeting. But fixing blame for what happened in the past does little to prevent future incidents.

What Can We Do?

To paraphrase Tolstoy, “Safe rail shipments are all alike; every derailment is unsafe in its own way.” No one is happy about the derailment in East Palestine. But anger isn’t a solution to preventing future catastrophic releases while shipping hazardous materials. We could ban rail shipments, but that would shift the shipment to tank trucks, and I’m sure we don’t want to see an equivalent amount of hazardous materials rolling down our highways.

The solution to preventing future catastrophic releases is to understand why they happen and address the causes. That means letting the NTSB do its job. But it also means acting on its conclusions. I, for one, was convinced before the East Palestine derailment that advanced braking systems were a good idea. I still do, even if I don’t blame their absence for the derailment.

Those of us in the chemical industry need to keep in mind that our responsibilities don’t end at the fence line. It would nice if we could just convince the public to like us, but in the absence of that, we need to prevent events that remind the public of how much they don’t like us. When it comes to preventing disasters involving hazardous materials, even process safety professionals have a role to play. Until we get to some point in the distant future when everything is made and used in situ, then that is going to be the case. So, like it or not, we have a responsibility to not only make our plants safer, but to advocate for making the rails safer as well.


  • Mike Schmidt

    With a career in the CPI that began in 1977 with Union Carbide, Mike was profoundly impacted by the 1984 tragedy in Bhopal and has been working on process safety ever since.