A Norfolk Southern train passes under a bridge in East Palestine, Ohio. On Feb. 3, an NS train carrying hazardous materials derailed, raising environmental concerns and stirring outrage from the town's residents. Michael Swensen/Getty Images
By the numbers

A toxic derailment, by the numbers

Hannah Baggenstoss Mar 8, 2023
A Norfolk Southern train passes under a bridge in East Palestine, Ohio. On Feb. 3, an NS train carrying hazardous materials derailed, raising environmental concerns and stirring outrage from the town's residents. Michael Swensen/Getty Images

The devastating train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio, has spurred a whirlwind of political and environmental turmoil, with residents and authorities anxious to get a clear picture of the event’s full impact, both short- and long-term. 

In response to the Feb. 3 derailment, Ohio’s U.S. senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican J.D. Vance, introduced a bill March 1 that seeks to “strengthen federal oversight” for trains carrying hazardous materials. 

The bill, called the Railway Safety Act, would introduce a list of updates and changes to train transportation regulations, including requiring that trains hauling hazardous materials be scanned with hot bearing detectors every 10 miles on railroad tracks and increasing the maximum fine for railroads that break rules to 1% of their annual operating income, instead of a flat $225,000

Here’s what we know so far, by the numbers: 

A little over one month ago, 38 cars on a Norfolk Southern train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, leading to a massive chemical fire. The train contained 20 cars hauling combustible, toxic materials like vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate. Of those 20 cars, 11 derailed.

On Feb. 5, about half of the 4,800 residents of East Palestine were told to evacuate the area within 1 mile of the crash site. That evacuation order was lifted Feb. 8. 

Also on Feb. 5, the federal Environmental Protection Agency conducted air tests after concerns were raised that volatile organic compounds — which are harmful to humans — were released during the crash.

Three days after the derailment, on Feb. 6, authorities burned toxic materials from five tank cars to reduce the risk of a dangerous explosion.

In addition, the National Transportation Safety Board directed a one-mile walk-through of the track outside the hot zone of the crash to try to identify the point of derailment. Air quality tests performed by the EPA in the surrounding area came back Feb. 12 registering no concerns, as did tests of municipal water wells on Feb. 16. 

Meanwhile, other reporting indicated the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said that about 3,500 fish across 12 species were found dead in local waterways, and some residents complained of nausea, rashes and headaches after returning to their homes on Feb. 10. 

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued a news release on Feb. 15 saying test results from five municipal water wells indicated no detection of contaminants from the derailment, but along with the Ohio EPA, DeWine still encouraged residents with private water wells to only use bottled water. Residents were also advised to get their homes deep-cleaned if necessary. 

That day, a few hundred East Palestine residents voiced their concerns to town officials in a packed gymnasium. Questions included how long the EPA would be there, what chemicals were released in the air and soil, and whether there would be compensation. Many were frustrated that no representatives from Norfolk Southern were present. 

Most recently, on Thursday, East Palestine residents got a chance to question a representative of the railway company. Debra Shore, a regional administrator for the federal EPA, said the agency was working on approving a plan to remove the contaminated soil underneath the tracks. According to data provided by DeWine’s office, about 1,400 tons of solid waste have been removed from the wreck site, and out of 170 private well systems tested, the results of 71 samples have been verified and show no harmful contamination levels.  

Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania — one of four states so far that may have been impacted by the spill — criticized the railroad company’s response to the accident in a letter to President and CEO Alan Shaw. 

Meanwhile, officials from Indiana, Texas and Michigan have said they were surprised to learn that waste from the derailment site would be shipped to their areas for disposal. As of Feb. 22, nearly 2 million gallons of firefighting water from the crash site were supposed to be disposed of in Harris County, Texas, and half a million gallons had already been delivered a week prior, per the county’s chief executive. 

On March 1, the Ohio Senate held its first hearing on the derailment. State senators questioned officials from the Ohio EPA about cleaning up the wreck site and testing the air, water and soil for toxic chemicals from the derailment.

Also on March 1, Jonathan Long, chairman of a Teamsters union branch that represents nearly 3,000 Norfolk Southern Maintenance of Way employees, wrote a letter to Gov. DeWine accusing the company of subpar treatment of its workers. The letter outlined the 30% shrinkage of the industry’s workforce since 2015 and alleged that the 40 employees who had come to the cleanup site were not provided adequate protective equipment.

The timing of federal officials’ visits to the scene provoked a round or two of political jockeying. Federal EPA Administrator Michael Regan toured the wreck site on Feb. 16, nearly two weeks after the incident. 

Former President Donald Trump visited East Palestine on Feb. 22. Earlier in the week, Trump lambasted President Joe Biden for being over 5,000 miles away in Ukraine. 

On Feb. 23, one day after Trump, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg arrived at the site of the train wreck. This visibility contest has prompted Republicans to push claims that Democratic leaders neglect rural areas like East Palestine, which are home largely to working-class people. In response, Democrats have taken the opportunity to denounce the Trump administration’s decision to deregulate railways in 2018. 

Just two days before Buttigieg’s arrival, the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to complete all necessary actions involved in the cleanup of the toxic crash. That includes cleaning all contaminated soil and water sources and paying the EPA’s costs for work performed under the order. According to experts at JPMorgan, based on past train derailments involving toxic spills, Norfolk Southern could face costs between $30 and $50 million. And that doesn’t include potential settlements.

In the weeks since the derailment, 19 lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. District Court’s Northern District of Ohio. The lawsuits seek compensatory and punitive damages and other actions, and most of them are against Norfolk Southern, with one targeting the EPA.

Early reporting from Feb. 9 indicated that the company was going to donate a total of $25,000 to East Palestine residents, which translates into about $5 per person. 

Reporting on Feb. 12 showed that there was confusion among residents about eligibility for reimbursement payments, and those who were forced to evacuate earlier on received a $1,000 inconvenience fee. 

Since then, the railroad company has continuously updated the NS Making It Right page on its website, posting about the reimbursement of over $2.7 million for fire equipment and a $1 million fund to support “immediate needs” in East Palestine. 

Since 1998, the railway industry has spent more than $756 million on political lobbying, according to data from OpenSecrets. Norfolk Southern itself has contributed nearly $80 million toward lobbying in the same period.

According to reporting from The New York Times, the rate of accidents on Norfolk Southern’s railway has increased every year for the last four years, but it still earned a profit of about $3 billion in 2022. Over the last five years, the company paid its shareholders nearly $18 billion through stock buybacks and dividends.

Just this Saturday, another train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed near Springfield, Ohio. Twenty-eight cars tumbled off the tracks.

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