Why the Ohio toxic train derailment is being compared to the 1986 nuclear disaster

    Why the Ohio toxic train derailment is being compared to the 1986 nuclear disaster

    Is this Ohio’s own ‘Chernobyl’?

    That is a question alarming many after a toxic chemicals-laden train derailed in Ohio near the Pennsylvania state line in the United States.

    About 50 cars, including 10 carrying hazardous chemicals, of the Norfolk Southern train went off tracks in East Palestine on 3 February, setting off a large blaze.

    Five of the tankers on the train had liquid vinyl chloride, which is linked to an increased risk of cancer in the brain, lungs and blood.

    Around 2,000 residents in the eastern Ohio town and surrounding areas, including parts of Pennsylvania, had to evacuate last week as officials executed a “controlled burn” of chemicals to prevent a dangerous explosion, that led to a large plume of black smoke. The residents were allowed to return to their homes two days after the burn.

    As the long-term environmental impact of the disaster remains unknown, some on Twitter and Telegram have dubbed the incident the “largest environmental disaster in history” or  “Chernobyl 2.0”.

    Some have also accused the authorities and media of trying to hide its full-scale impact.

    Why is the Ohio train derailment being compared to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster? What are the concerns flagged by residents and what are the authorities saying? Let’s understand.

    Chernobyl nuclear disaster

    The 1986 nuclear disaster occurred after a reactor at the Chernobyl power plant in then-Soviet Ukraine exploded, exposing the core, and causing a fire that disseminated large amounts of radioactive materials such as plutonium, iodine, strontium, and cesium in the atmosphere.

    While two people immediately died after the April explosion, 30 emergency workers succumbed to radiation sickness and one died of cardiac arrest in the initial months of the disaster.

    The 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl power plant sent radioactive materials into the air. AP File Photo

    The United Nations estimates that only 50 deaths happened due to the nuclear disaster. In 2005, the UN said another 4,000 might eventually die due to radiation exposure, BBC reported.

    The figures for deaths and diseases caused due to radiation exposure are still disputed.

    Thousands of animals were killed in the area around Chernobyl after the disaster, reported BBC.

    “The psychological effects of Chernobyl were and remain widespread and profound, and have resulted for instance in suicides, drinking problems and apathy,” as per International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

    The catastrophe also triggered mutations in plants and animals, IAEA noted.

    Around 150,000 square kilometre area spanning Belarus, Russia and Ukraine is contaminated, while a 30-kilometre region around the plant comes under the “exclusion zone” and is mostly uninhabited, according to IAEA.

    ALSO READ: Animals are dropping dead, are humans safe? The toxic train derailment in Ohio explained

    What about Ohio?

    Besides vinyl chloride, other chemicals aboard the train included butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene.

    Some of these are carcinogenic chemicals, which means they have the ability to cause cancer.

    However, as Business Insider noted, these toxic chemicals are far less potent than the nuclear waste in Chernobyl.

    No injuries were reported after the train derailed in East Palestine but some residents have complained of headaches, sore throats, irritated eyes, nausea and respiratory issues.

    The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has said that at least 3,500 fish, including minnows and darters, have been found dead along more than 11.2 kilometers of streams, Associated Press (AP) reported.

    A resident in the town of North Lima, 10 miles away from the train derailment site, said six of her chickens died after the “controlled release” of the hazardous chemicals.

    Some residents are also battling stress and psychological trauma after the train disaster.

    Toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether were on board the train that derailed in East Palestine. AFP File Photo

    “We need to start looking at the emotional and psychological long-term impact,” a coffee shop owner in East Palestine, Ben Ratner, told BBC.

    “People are concerned when they hear trains, or when they think of their kids going outside, or letting their dog outside and having it accidentally drink contaminated water… it’s serious.”

    “For this town, this is a Pearl Harbor, or a 9/11. One of those things that people always talk about,” he added.

    Speaking to BBC, another resident, John Hamner, compared their situation after the train derailment to “East Palestine’s Chernobyl”.

    Hamner said his eyes are red and swollen because of the lingering effects of the spilled chemicals in the air, water and soil.

    What do residents want?

    While the local officials have assured the residents that it is safe to return to their homes, water is not contaminated and the air is safe to breathe, residents remain sceptical.

    Hamner, who has a garbage truck business in the rural Ohio town, told BBC: “I’m at the point now where I want out of here. We’re going to relocate. We can’t do it no more.”

    Residents are also fed up with what they say is “incomplete and vague information” about the lasting effects of the disaster, reported AP.

    “I have three grandbabies,” resident Kathy Dyke, who attended a town hall meeting in East Palestine this week, said, as per AP. “Are they going to grow up here in five years and have cancer?”

    A resident told local TV station WKYC that people were “suspicious, paranoid and worried.”

    Another, Kelly Felger, told CNN that “I’m scared, I’m scared for my family, I’m scared for my town.”

    People are also angry with rail operator Norfolk Southern, whom they accuse of negligence which led to the derailment.

    At least five lawsuits have been filed against the railroad, which has said it will set up a $1 million fund to help the community.

    “We are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive,” Norfolk Southern president and CEO Alan Shaw said in a letter to the community, as per AP. 

    East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway has said that the train company has “screwed up our town” and “they’re going to fix it”, reported AFP. 

    What are the authorities saying?

    As of 15 February, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) screened 486 homes near the accident site, and no vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride has been detected.

    Authorities have also maintained that tests show the air is safe and no pollutants have been found in the municipal water system.

    “I want this community to know that they don’t have to manage this issue on their own. We will be here to help,” Michael Regan, administrator of EPA, said on Thursday (16 February).

    He also said that water from wells, streams and the city taps has been tested for several factors “to ensure that we’re protecting these communities”, AFP reported.

    With inputs from agencies

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    Updated Date:

    February 17, 2023 14:16:13 IST

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