'We Basically Nuked a Town': Hazmat Specialist on Ohio Toxic Spill

A hazardous materials expert has criticized the handling of the toxic chemicals spill on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania, claiming in excoriating remarks that the town of East Palestine had been "nuked with chemicals so we could get a railroad open."

At about 8:55 p.m. ET on February 3, a Norfolk Southern cargo train of around 150 cars derailed—20 of which were carrying hazardous materials—causing a massive fire.

Fearing a massive explosion that would have sent noxious gases and shrapnel into the surrounding area, emergency responders breached five cars to let out the vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical, inside. The chemicals were diverted into a trench and burnt off.

Officials warned that the controlled burn would send toxic gases phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the atmosphere. Local residents were evacuated, but were allowed to return home on February 8 after the fire had been extinguished.

Ohio train derailment crash site
An aerial photo taken on February 7, 2023, of the derailment site after the fire was extinguished. The EPA has found several toxic chemicals in contaminated air, soil or water surrounding the crash site. EPA

Environmental regulators have been monitoring the air and drinking water around the site of the derailment, and have so far said both remain unaffected by the spill. In a statement yesterday, Debra Shore, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional administrator, noted that the federal agency had assisted with the screening of 396 homes as of February 14, with an additional 65 to be tested that day.

However, residents have complained of symptoms associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, and experts have warned that the chemicals that have been found to have leached into the environment may have ecological consequences depending on the effectiveness of the clean-up operation.

Speaking to local news channel WKBN, Sil Caggiano, a former fire department battalion chief in Youngstown, Ohio, and a hazmat technician for 21 years, said: "We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open."

He added: "I was surprised when they quickly told the people they can go back home, but then said if they feel like they want their homes tested they can have them tested. I would've far rather they did all the testing."

Newsweek has contacted the EPA and Norfolk Southern for comment.

The EPA has maintained that readings of toxic chemicals have continually remained at levels considered safe, and Norfolk Southern contractors were testing water supplies.

"Since the fire went out on February 8, EPA air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment," Shore said. "Air monitoring data was provided to state health agencies on February 8 for review prior to the state's decision to lift the evacuation."

However, residents have questioned the safety of returning so soon after the fire was put out. At a press conference about the spill on Tuesday, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine defended the decision, saying he would be back in his home if he were an East Palestine resident.

Train derailment fire
An aerial view of the fire that engulfed the derailed rail cars taken using a drone. Officials initiated a controlled burn of vinyl chloride in five cars after fearing they might explode. EPA

Officials have previously said they were removing contaminated soil from the crash site that would prevent further off-gassing of vapors into the atmosphere. Marc Glass, an environmental consultant, told Newsweek that the fact that there were multiple chemicals present may be intensifying their effects, despite being at safe levels for humans.

A February 10 letter from the EPA to Norfolk Southern said that as well as vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl were present in the environment. All are toxic substances.

Caggiano said the ethylhexyl acrylate was what he was most worried about, as he claimed it is carcinogenic; the Library of Public Medicine records say there is inadequate evidence for this, but notes that vinyl chloride is carcinogenic.

"There's a lot of what-ifs, and we're going to be looking at this thing 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the line and wondering, 'Gee, cancer clusters could pop up, you know, well water could go bad," Caggiano told WKBN.

Newsweek has contacted the Ohio Department of Health for comment.

Contaminants were found in the nearby waterway of Sulphur Run, and experts fear that chemicals could make their way into the groundwater.

DeWine admitted that he would not be drinking the water if he was in the area. "I think that I would be drinking the bottled water," he said. "And I would be continuing to find out what the tests were showing as far as the air."