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Should Norfolk Southern take a page from the chemical industry's approach to accident response?

A worker sits atop a train car as crews work on the cleanup of the East Palestine train derailment on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A worker sits atop a train car as crews work on the cleanup of the East Palestine train derailment on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.

In the aftermath of the train derailment in East Palestine, Norfolk Southern has been criticized for a lack of transparency and communication. One expert thinks freight rail companies like Norfolk Southern should take a look at how the chemical industry responds to accidents.

Peter Molinaro worked in the chemical industry for more than 30 years, including almost a decade as Vice President of North American Government Affairs at Dow Chemical. He also worked on the team from Union Carbide Corporation that responded to a childhood cancer cluster in Toms River, New Jersey, linked to chemical contamination from Union Carbide.

It’s common for chemical companies to fund community advisory committees to advise on accident prevention and response, Molinaro said. He thinks Norfolk Southern should follow suit in East Palestine.

“In the aftermath of an incident, I think you would want to have a plan that said alright let’s share power," Molinaro said.

Residents have been critical that Norfolk Southern is in charge of environmental testing and say the company isn't doing enough to support them. Many don't feel safe living in the town, and Norfolk Southern is only paying for residents within a one mile radius of the derailment to relocate during the cleanup. Molinaro thinks the company should provide funding for residents to do additional testing to let them make decisions from data they can better trust.

"The companies may wind up doing some things that are not scientifically necessary but are important for the purpose of building trust," Molinaro said.

For weeks after the accident, residents voiced concerns about dioxins, pollutants that can be released by burning chemicals, like the ones that were burnt during the controlled release after the derailment. However, the Environmental Protection Agency maintained it was unnecessary to monitor for the pollutant until almost a month after the derailment when they ordered Norfolk Southern to do so. But residents were upset it took that long for the EPA to take action on only one of their concerns. Giving residents a seat at the table could mitigate some of these criticisms, Molinaro said.

“Try to avoid as much as possible this paternalistic treatment that typically evolves here where the government comes down and says, “Hey we’re here to help you. We know what to do. We’ve all decided to burn off the vinyl chloride,'" Molinaro said.

This has been a common complaint from residents, who feel like they don’t have any say in testing or enough access to information. Residents have also called into question the decision to perform a controlled release of the vinyl chloride aboard the derailed train. They wonder if that was actually the safest solution or if it was just the fastest way for Norfolk Southern to get trains back on the tracks.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.