Allegheny responds to East Palestine spill

A train carrying a wide range of industrial chemicals derailed on Friday, Feb. 3, in East Palestine, Ohio — just 80 miles from Meadville. Many of the chemicals that were spilled during the wreck are carcinogenic and known to cause acute and long-term adverse health effects.
“We understand that there has been concern expressed in certain segments of the media about the train derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3,” the college wrote in a statement to The Campus on Friday, Feb. 17. “We know that the event was significant and had real consequences for the inhabitants of East Palestine and their neighbors. We want to assure you that Allegheny takes the health and safety of its community very seriously. Allegheny College is unaware of any dangers posed locally to health and safety from the East Palestine incident.”
The college has been in contact with the Crawford County Emergency Management Coordinator, who has reaffirmed that neither the federal Environment Protection Agency nor the State Department of Environmental Protection have issued any directives to Crawford County.
While East Palestine and Meadville are both located within the Ohio River Watershed, Meadville is located upstream, which means any potential contamination of water sources in East Palestine will not affect Meadville.
Still, many students have been worried about possible air contamination on campus. Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability Matt Betherum said he shares similar concerns.
“I haven’t seen anything definitive about how far those toxins reached in the airshed in the aftermath of the disaster, but it’s a possibility, at least, that this community could have been exposed to probably what would have been relatively low levels of anything that got into the air,” Betherum said.
Betherum teaches environmental policy and believes the severity of the derailment came as a direct result of multiple “bad actors” working in conjunction with each other over the past year.
During the summer of 2022, rail employees threatened to strike nationwide if they did not receive better employment benefits and safer working conditions — which included the installation of updated safety features on trains and tracks. Betherum said rail companies opposed employees’ demands because they were too expensive. The companies wrote a labor agreement that did not satisfy employees, which the Biden administration then helped to pass on Dec. 2, 2022.
“The railroad industry has got a special carve out that goes way, way back because of how important the railroads were for moving goods around the United States,” Betherum said. “And so the federal government does have the authority to bust a strike, in essence. They don’t call it that. What they call it is, ‘We’re going to moderate an agreement here.’ Well, it just so happens that they decided to adopt the agreement that was written by the rail industry which didn’t meet virtually any of the workers’ demands, including the safety stuff.”
The passage of the labor agreement prevented employees from striking and did not significantly alter their working conditions. Officials are still uncertain what specifically caused the train in East Palestine to derail, but experts interviewed by Vox say it is likely that if specific safety mechanisms had been installed, the derailment would not have been so devastating.
While train derailments are dramatic events, they are not uncommon. The Federal Railroad Administration reported approximately 1,000 train derailments in 2022.
“We don’t hear about it most of the time because usually they don’t explode and f——- spew toxins everywhere, although that happens too, you know, with some regularity,” Betherum said. “This isn’t a brand-new thing. The only reason why those things haven’t been put in place is because of the lobbying power of the rail industry, basically.”
Betherum believes Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg could have used his authority to mitigate the potential for the disaster by enforcing a wide variety of safety mechanisms for trains and tracks. Buttigieg’s lack of action raises red flags for Betherum.
“My sense of it — and again, this is just my take on it — is because his political aspirations don’t lead him to really give much of a damn about the job he’s supposed to be doing,” Betherum said. “Instead, it’s all with an eye on a future presidential run. I think that’s what he is most focused on.”
The remediation effort for chemical spills is a long, work-intensive process, and cleanup of the affected area has been ongoing since hours after the derailment occurred. The effort to deal with contaminated soil is still underway, but the EPA reported on Feb. 19 that their tools did not detect any air or water contamination in the area. However, Delphine Farmer, a chemist at Colorado State University, told Vox that she believes the tools the EPA is using to measure air contamination are not reliable in an outdoor setting. Furthermore, she said scientists are not entirely sure what level of exposure to the chemicals is safe for humans in the long-run.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine encouraged residents of East Palestine to return to their homes on Feb. 8, assuring them that measurements of the air and water showed no significant signs of contamination. However, PBS reported that upon returning, many residents experienced headaches and eye irritation — among other symptoms — and are concerned that the area is not as safe as officials are promising. Additionally, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated that approximately 3,500 fish were dead in surrounding surface waters as a result of the toxic spillage.
Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability Delia Byrnes teaches environmental justice, which focuses on the idea that all people have the right to equal environmental protection under the law. She said that while it is too early to know if there will be specific populations who are disproportionately impacted by the derailment in East Palestine, the event could potentially follow historical trends.
“If we want to think about the aftermath of events such as these, we know that historically, national trends suggest that some communities — such as those that are predominantly white and middle-to-upper income — often benefit more, compared to their BIPOC and low-income counterparts, from social and infrastructural investment to prevent and mitigate disasters when they do happen,” Byrnes said in an email.
She also said it is important to think about where railroads are located in relation to a community’s relative wealth and how as a result, certain populations might be disproportionately impacted by train-related disasters.
While the derailment did not occur in Meadville, it is possible Meadville could suffer a similar catastrophe in the future.
“It’s a scary situation for anybody who lives anywhere a rail line goes through in the future where a similar type of disaster could happen in their neighborhood sometime,” Betherum said. “You know, we’ve got rail tracks that run right through Meadville. I don’t know what’s on the trains that come through Meadville, but conceivably something like this could happen right here.”
Betherum hopes East Palestine continues to recover from the train derailment and that the town’s story will serve as a wake-up call for Americans all over the country.
“This one — for whatever combination of reasons — does feel like it’s grabbed the public’s attention a little bit more,” Betherum said. “It does seem like it’s getting some more news coverage, again, for whatever reason. So it’s awful that it happened, but now that it has happened, the hope is that something can come out of it that strengthens our protection system so that nobody else has to go through this.”