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Ohio toxic disaster killing fish, sickening animals and more, reports say

Members of the 52nd Civil Support Team ready themselves to enter an affected incident area to assess and collect samples at public facilities for any possible remaining hazards following a large-scale train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 7, 2023. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Ivy Thomas, Ohio National Guard Public Affairs)
February 14, 2023

Toxic chemicals that were unleashed near a small Ohio town after a train went off the tracks this month, forcing thousands to evacuate and raising alarming health concerns, have lawmakers on both sides of the aisle calling for accountability.

After vinyl chloride was deliberately burned in several derailed train cars near East Palestine, Ohio, an estimated 3,500 fish were killed across about 7.5 miles of streams, News 5 Cleveland reported, and other stories of animals falling ill have circulated online and in the media.

Ordering residents to evacuate ahead of time, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine warned of the “grave danger” posed by the resulting fumes. When burned, vinyl chloride releases two poisonous gasses: phosgene, which was used as a chemical weapon in World War I, and hydrogen chloride, which can result in severe burns.

In a statement on the crash, Sen. JD Vance (R-OH) said he has heard “alarming anecdotes about contaminated waterways and effects on wildlife.”

“I encourage anyone with credible reports of environmental harms to contact my office,” he said. “This is a complex environmental disaster with impacts that may be difficult to assess in the short term.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) called for “Congressional inquiry and direct action from [Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg] to address this tragedy,” adding that it “will have a significant negative impact on the health and wellbeing of the residents for decades.”

About three hours later, Buttigieg tweeted that he is “concerned” but said no contaminants were detected in 291 homes screened so far by the Environmental Protection Agency. Screenings remain to be performed in 181 homes, according to the latest EPA update.

About 50 of 150 cars on the train, operated by Norfolk Southern, went off the tracks late on Feb. 3, sparking a large fire. Ten of the derailed cars were carrying hazardous chemicals, including cancer-causing vinyl chloride, which officials soon feared would explode, NPR reported.

Norfolk Southern completed a controlled burn of vinyl chloride in five of the cars on Feb. 6, sending a massive plume of flames and black smoke over East Palestine. 

DeWine announced that residents could return to their homes on Feb. 8, citing good results from air quality samples. 

A federal lawsuit has been filed by residents hoping for damages from Norfolk Southern, as well as to force the rail company to set up health monitoring for nearby residents, as reported by the Associated Press.