by Gregory T. Moore
The Feb. 3, 2023 Norfolk Southern Train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio has become a profound wake-up call for Ohio and the nation on the dangers of hazardous toxic materials being transported through states, often without the knowledge of local officials. Preliminary analysis by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed that cargo wheel bearings overheating led to a deficiency in the warning systems that contributed to the derailment. As the testing and cleanup continue, other Ohio cities including Cleveland are taking a second look at railway safety standards for shipping hazardous toxic cargo.
While East Palestine may be ninety miles from Cleveland, the same train that derailed had passed through our city earlier on the same day of the disaster. Several Environmental Justice leaders are asking what if the derailment had taken place in Cleveland, Akron, or Youngstown which all have larger population centers. Central to their concern is the local preparedness for such an environmental disaster that would impact the more populated Northeast Ohio. There were initial fears about what effect the derailment might have had on Lake Erie and the Great Lakes. After several weeks of daily testing of water in Lake Erie, the Niagara River, and treated water supplies by the Erie County Water Authority, there have been “no detected chemicals involved in the train derailment – including vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen that was burned following the accident.”
The Cleveland Water Department released a statement shortly after the derailment asserting that the event in East Palestine “did not affect Cleveland’s Lake Erie Water Source.” However, Cleveland is no stranger to environmental disasters. In the summer of 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire, gaining nationwide attention that helped spark a national grassroots movement for new federal guidelines related to clean water. The loose state and local regulatory process that allowed smaller tributaries like the Cuyahoga River to be classified for “industrial use” was not unique to Cleveland.
Many lakes and rivers throughout the Midwest were literally allowed to become “industrial and municipal sewers,” according to a 2019 article released by the Property and Environmental Research Center. It was common practice as water tributaries in the late 1960s were loosely regulated, allowing industries and local municipalities to use the Cuyahoga River as a discharger; allowing them to pollute the waterway based on the state’s previous designation of the Cuyahoga River as an “industrial stream.” The report concluded that municipal authorities left the Cuyahoga River alone—allowing firms along its banks to discharge into it at will.
The widespread pollution of the Cuyahoga River was a wake-up call to the nation that our waterways could no longer be dumping grounds and vast wastelands for manufacturing industries and corporations. It brought new attention to the conditions of many rivers and lakes throughout the US that were increasingly polluted over the years by the rapid growth of industries during the 20th century. This changing sentiment for taking action on the problem of water and air pollution eventually grew into an environmental movement that established what is now known as Earth Day, first observed on April 22, 1970.
By 1972 Congress passed a law, signed by then President Richard Nixon, creating the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Clean Water Act passed shortly thereafter. Federal and state environmental standards have since grown and strengthened over these last 53 years. Today the Cuyahoga River has been restored following over five decades of clean-up and restoration policies undertaken by state and local governments working with conservationists and private industries. In 2019, the U.S. EPA even deemed the Cuyahoga River safe for fishing following many years of testing to ensure its fish were safe for consumption.
The disaster that befell East Palestine presents another opportunity for Ohio to be a catalyst for exposing the environmental dangers that await every urban, suburban, and rural community where hazardous materials are still being shipped through. The federal, state, and county governments in Ohio and Pennsylvania have formed what they have termed a “Unified Command” pledging to continue to work together to ensure Norfolk Southern keeps its commitments to clean up the site and take full responsibility for the damage caused.
According to Marc Durno, EPA’s on-site coordinator in East Palestine, “We’re under what we call a unified command. And the unified command means agencies who have responsibility, who have a stake in what’s happening, are making decisions, and taking action on the ground.” The Unified Command has continued to undertake testing and monitoring of the water, air, and soil samples at agricultural, commercial, recreational, residential, and commercial properties in both Ohio and Pennsylvania.
On April 14, 2023, the Unified Command announced that it had:
Despite the release of these results, pledges have been met with some skepticism by the people of East Palestine, who have waged a gallant fight to sound the alarm about the threats to our water, soil, and air in the aftermath of the disaster. While there is cause for skepticism, the people of East Palestine should look north to the nearly forgotten efforts of civic, environmental, political, and business leaders who developed long-term plans to clean up the Cuyahoga River. It was a multi-decade effort to repair and rebuild not just the river, but the surrounding land areas along its shores. Continued success still requires close monitoring and adherence to all Clean Water Act Guidelines including litter control.
The Cuyahoga River’s renaissance is a prime historical example of how public, private, business, and community leaders and advocates can work together to revive a river that had been left for dead decades ago. We need this same level of short- and long-term commitment to be focused on preparedness for any potentially hazardous disasters here in Cleveland and throughout Northeast Ohio. The city of Cleveland is filled with freight rail lines that run throughout dense neighborhoods and in many cases Black, Brown, and low-income communities. The City of Cleveland officials acknowledged in a Feb. 17 statement that local communities are vulnerable to potential accidents along these multiple freight lines.
On June 3, 2020, Cleveland City Council passed an emergency resolution #465-2020 condemning Norfolk Southern Corporation for “rerouting daily trains carrying highly toxic flammable crude oil and ethanol through the city of Cleveland without public notice.” The resolution went on to urge Norfolk Southern to reroute trains to less populated routes. The Federal Railroad Administration, state and federal EPA officials, and Congress are continuing to gather data, monitor rail safety guidelines, and consider stronger regulations in light of this and other derailments that have occurred since the East Palestine disaster.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said; “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This in essence was the message of the first Earth Day back in 1970. In 2023 we need to recapture that same spirit and take decisive steps to avoid potential environmental disasters among the residents of Cuyahoga County. Given the high stakes and long-term implications such a disaster would have, climate advocates acknowledge that long-term solutions will require Northeast Ohioans to work together across racial, economic, political, and geographic lines of cooperation.