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A Chemical Train Derailment in Ohio
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A Chemical Train Derailment in Ohio

Government officials say it’s safe for residents of East Palestine to return home, but risks remain.

Happy Wednesday! In an effort to speed up the game, Major League Baseball’s joint competition committee voted unanimously this week to permanently keep a pandemic-era rule change that automatically puts a “zombie runner” on second base to start every extra inning.

Our reaction, and the reaction of all people of good will:

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Nikki Haley—former governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the United Nations—announced Tuesday she is running for president in 2024, becoming the first prominent Republican to officially challenge former President Donald Trump for the party’s nomination. Her kick-off video calls for “generational change” in GOP leadership, highlighting the party’s failure to win the presidential popular vote in seven out of the last eight elections. Haley will hold a rally in her home state today, and then campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire later this week. 
  • The Consumer Price Index rose 0.5 percent month-over-month and 6.4 percent annually in January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday, down slightly from 6.5 percent in December but faster than the 6.2 percent economists anticipated. The growth will likely keep the Federal Reserve on track to raise interest rates again when it meets in March.
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence is likely to challenge the subpoena recently issued by Special Counsel Jack Smith—who is investigating former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overthrow the 2020 presidential election. People familiar with Pence’s intentions say the former vice president plans to argue his role as president of the Senate shields him from testifying on the particulars of his work by the Constitution’s “speech and debate” clause. The subpoena, reportedly issued Thursday, would compel Pence to share details of his interactions with Trump in the leadup to January 6, 2021.
  • National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday the three flying objects shot down over the U.S. and Canada over the weekend were likely “benign,” and may have served some “commercial” purpose. Kirby added the objects’ origins are still unknown—though they don’t belong to the U.S. government—and the military has yet to recover the debris from the remote locations where the objects fell.
  • The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) announced yesterday U.S. F-16 fighters scrambled Monday to perform a “routine” intercept of four Russian fighter jets entering Alaska’s air defense identification zone. Russian planes did not cross into U.S. or Canadian airspace, and turned away when approached by the U.S. jets. Similar encounters occur between seven and eight times a year, NORAD said.
  • Federal Reserve Vice Chair Lael Brainard will replace outgoing National Economic Council head Brian Deese, the White House announced Tuesday. President Joe Biden announced Deese’s departure earlier this month, and Brainard’s departure from the Fed will free up a Senate-confirmed seat on the central bank’s seven-person board. 
  • Federal Trade Commissioner (FTC) Christine Wilson—the only Republican on the five-person commission—announced in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Tuesday she will resign from the FTC in protest of what she calls Chairwoman Lina Khan’s “abuses of power.” Khan, nominated by President Joe Biden, has moved aggressively to counter tech mergers and scrutinize businesses she considers monopolies. The other Republican member of the commission, Noah Phillips, resigned in October.
  • Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California announced Tuesday she will not seek reelection in 2024 to the seat she’s held since 1992. California Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter—both Democrats—have already launched their bids to replace the Senate’s longest serving woman in history, while California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee is reported to be jumping into the race soon.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week suicides in the United States increased from 45,979 in 2020 to 48,183 in 2021, nearing 2018’s record high of 48,344 and reversing 2019 and 2020’s declines.

East Palestine’s Unfolding Disaster

Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio. Photo by DUSTIN FRANZ/AFP via Getty Images)

When residents of East Palestine, Ohio, performed as extras in 2021 for a movie about a chemical spill from a derailed train, they never could have predicted life would imitate art quite so closely. Two years later, they’re sharing apocalyptic video clips of smoke billowing above their homes and questioning whether the water’s safe to drink.

On the evening of Friday, February 3, about 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern Railroad train slid off the tracks on the edge of the Ohio village, which sits just across the border from Pennsylvania, about 40 miles from Pittsburgh. It’s not yet clear why, but an initial update by the National Transportation Safety Board suggests an overheated wheel bearing contributed to the accident. Eleven of those cars contained hazardous chemicals—including vinyl chloride, used in making plastics—and the contents began to leak from cars after the derailment as several caught fire. Initially, even firemen were forced to keep their distance.

The following Sunday, state officials expanded an evacuation to include all residents within a one-by-two mile radius of the crash site—a derailed car was a threat to blow up, likely scattering shrapnel. In an effort to avert an explosion, Norfolk Southern workers were authorized by Gov. Mike DeWine to drain five cars of vinyl chloride into trenches and burn the runoff, producing several compounds, including phosgene—which the Germans first used as a choking agent during World War I. DeWine described the move as the lesser of “two bad options,” but the resulting plume of black smoke could be seen from miles away.

“We know the smoke looked alarming, but we are being told that everything was carried out according to plan,” Pennsylvania’s emergency management agency said that evening. Some residents doubt that plan was enough to keep them safe.

The health effects of the spilled chemicals depend on exposure levels, but several chemicals the train was carrying can cause headaches and burning eyes. Vinyl chloride is particularly nasty—inhaling high levels can also cause dizziness, while long-term exposure can lead to cancer. It’s gaseous at room temperature, though, so the threat of inhalation from the planned burn dissipated quickly and officials lifted the evacuation order last Wednesday.

But people in and around the evacuation zone have reported a variety of symptoms in recent days including burning eyes, persistent coughing, and headaches. Some say their chickens and pet foxes have turned up dead in the days since the derailment. The Ohio Department of Agriculture said it hasn’t received any concerning official reports about animal wellness, but the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated by Wednesday the chemical spill had killed an estimated 3,500 small fish across more than seven miles of streams. The Environmental Protection Agency found signs of the chemicals in several streams and in the Ohio River, prompting nearby West Virginia officials to shut down water production in the area and find an alternate source. With EPA oversight, Norfolk Southern contractors installed booms—floating barriers that stop debris and floating chemicals—and underflow dams to prevent more chemicals from spreading through the water.

Ongoing cleanup efforts will reduce the risk that remaining debris—not just the chemicals, but also burned components of the train—continue leaking harmful compounds. According to Norfolk Southern’s remediation plan, some 180,000 gallons of liquid have already been removed, and surface water flow has been redirected away from the crash site. Workers will remove shallow soil that may have been contaminated, and the company promises to install groundwater monitoring wells. 

But in a Friday letter to Norfolk Southern, the Ohio EPA noted chemicals from the train “continue to be released to the air, surface soils, and surface waters.” Even as the acute danger of air contamination fades, the risk of ground contamination lingers. Ohio EPA officials have been testing the town’s water and air and have said repeatedly both are safe, but chemicals absorbed into the ground could in time leak into groundwater or private wells—and the EPA also warned contaminated soil and pooling liquid may have been improperly buried while rebuilding the train line. “The air quality impacts are more likely to be transient,” said Richard Peltier, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The open question … is there a big underground reservoir of this stuff? Sitting in an aquifer or a well, for example, where the stuff is going to leach over time?” Since several of the chemicals released are carcinogens, long-term exposure via groundwater could raise residents’ risk of cancer.

Some experts also believe the EPA’s public assurances of safety to be premature. “Measurements that were done in East Palestine were done when the accident site was upwind of the accident, so chemical releases would not be impacting the town,” Peter DeCarlo, an environmental health professor at Johns Hopkins University, told The Dispatch. “If (and when) the wind changes directions, any continuing chemical release from the accident site will follow the wind. So it may be safe one day and not the next depending on where the wind is going and what chemicals continue to be released into the air.” Former EPA regional administrator Judith Enck agreed, urging the EPA to use equipment sophisticated enough to pick up low levels of contamination and test for the full range of compounds produced when the existing chemicals and train components burned.

Enck also critiqued the evacuation radius. Four miles outside the accident, for example, owners of a rescue ranch reported burning eyes after watching the plume come over them. “The evacuation zone was remarkably small considering what was going on here,” Enck told The Dispatch. “I don’t know why they were being so skimpy on protecting people’s health.” Now, she argued, the EPA should swiftly make its test results publicly available, conduct community surveys to document symptoms, and test people’s homes to ensure particulate matter from the burn didn’t settle inside.

The EPA is helping administer Norfolk Southern’s offer of optional home air quality screenings, and the train company reported Monday 340 completed tests hadn’t shown any evidence of substances from the derailment. But only about 450 homeowners of East Palestine’s nearly 2,000 households have requested a test. In the meantime, Karen Dannemiller, a professor at Ohio State University who studies indoor air quality, recommended residents clean their homes as an extra precaution. “Because we spend so much time in our indoor environments, the house can be a potentially important source of exposure,” she told The Dispatch. “Now’s a really great time to make sure you’re wiping down surfaces. Also, thinking about anything that’s porous that might tend to absorb odors.”

The cause and scope of the accident may not be clear yet, but officials are already calling for change. DeWine demanded to know why the train was reportedly not marked as carrying high hazardous material, which would have required railroad officials to notify the state that it was passing through. “If this is true, this is absurd,” the governor said. “Congress needs to take a look at how these things are handled. We should know when we have trains carrying hazardous materials going through the state of Ohio.” New Republican Sen. J.D. Vance demanded answers about the quality of the train’s braking system, while Greg Regan, head of a group of transportation unions within AFL-CIO, urged the Federal Railroad Administration to require major railroads to use its currently voluntary confidential “close calls” reporting system, designed to let employees report unsafe incidents so they can be addressed. 

Outside the EPA, the Biden administration has been strangely quiet on the derailment. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre didn’t provide many answers when she was first asked about the issue on Tuesday, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg publicly mentioned the derailment for the first time Monday night, ten full days after it occurred. “I continue to be concerned about the impacts of the Feb 3 train derailment near East Palestine, OH,” he tweeted, adding the DOT has been “supporting” the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation. “We will look to these investigation results & based on them, use all relevant authorities to ensure accountability and continue to support safety.”

As East Palestine residents wait to learn more, they’re trying to hold Norfolk Southern accountable: At least four class-action lawsuits have already been filed. In a letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, resident Lenny Glavan summed up the town’s frustration. “You just ripped from us our small-town motto ‘A place you want to be,’” he wrote. “The railroad that gave this small town life has now taken the life, the heartbeat, the unity, and that security that families or individuals long for in this wild world away … possibly indefinitely.”

Worth Your Time

  • The West stepped away from Africa in recent decades—allowing Russia and China to step in. The U.S. and E.U. “effectively lost Africa. The question now is how to win it back,” Ana Palacio writes for Project Syndicate. “The U.S. should recognize the potential of its vibrant African diaspora to serve as a bridge to the continent. The newly-announced Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement is a welcome step to that end. Efforts that reflect a recognition of Africa’s crucial position on the world stage—such as U.S. President Joe Biden’s formal endorsement for the African Union to gain a seat at the G20—are also valuable,” she argues. “The EU, for its part, should avoid succumbing to pressure to adopt a transactional approach to a continent that is already skeptical of its intentions. Instead, Europe should play to its strengths, such as by leveraging its normative power to help the continent tackle online hate speech and incitement to violence, at a time when social media’s role in fueling political violence is under close scrutiny.”
  • A new drug, Mounjaro, did what nothing had ever done for Paul Ford: shut down his appetite. Is he still the same person? “I have been the living embodiment of the deadly sin of gluttony, judged as greedy and weak since I was 10 years old—and now the sin is washed away. Baptism by injection,” he writes for Wired. “But I have no more virtue than I did a few months ago. I just prefer broccoli to gloopy chicken. Is this who I am? How long is it before there’s an injection for your appetites, your vices? Maybe they’re not as visible as mine. Would you self-administer a weekly anti-avarice shot? Can Big Pharma cure your sloth, lust, wrath, envy, pride? Is this how humanity fixes climate change—by injecting harmony, instead of hoping for it at Davos? … When I let the domain name for my diet blog expire, I accepted that there was no technology that could change my biological responses to my own satiety. Now there is, and the part of me that tracked every meal, searched for solutions in apps and programs, wrote code, and took notes is obsolete. Was that time wasted?”
  • A lot of very smart people believe some very stupid things. Why? “While unintelligent people are more easily misled by other people, intelligent people are more easily misled by themselves,” Gurwinder writes in his latest newsletter, referencing a number of studies on ideological bias. “They’re better at convincing themselves of things they want to believe rather than things that are actually true. This is why intelligent people tend to have stronger ideological biases; being better at reasoning makes them better at rationalizing.” In the end, Gurwinder argues, “rationality is not about intelligence but about character. Without the right personal qualities, education and IQ won’t make you master of your biases, they’ll only make you a better servant of them. So be open to the possibility that you may be wrong, and always be willing to change your mind—especially if you’re smart. By being humble and curious you may not win many arguments, but it won’t matter, for even losing arguments will become a victory that moves you toward the far grander prize of truth.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Jonah’s riding solo on today’s episode of The Remnant, recording from beautiful Springfield, Illinois, and letting his mind drift from place to place like a wayward spy balloon. Rank punditry, the problems with “Buy American,” NIMBYism, Cronuts—this podcast has it all.
  • Democrats’ slightly larger Senate majority is giving some of Biden’s more controversial nominees life, Haley reports in Tuesday’s Uphill. Gigi Sohn, Biden’s nominee for Federal Communications Commissioner, is an example of someone who may squeak through after failing to gain enough support last Congress.
  • In this week’s Sweep (🔒), Sarah fills readers in on why politicians run for president even if they know they’re going to lose. “Candidates can enhance their national name recognition, build out their fundraising operation, increase their speaking fees, and get a cable news contract or a paid position on a board,” she writes. “A failed longshot presidential run—when matched with good political instincts and raw talent—can launch someone into stardom. And the downsides are minimal.”
  • Nick exhibits some uncharacteristic optimism in Tuesday’s Boiling Frogs (🔒)—writing about the 2024 GOP primary on Earth 2, where Donald Trump doesn’t exist. “From time to time you’ll hear Republican candidates who are soft-spoken by nature defend themselves as ‘conservative but not angry about it,’” he writes. “[Tim] Scott and [Nikki] Haley each fit that bill, which makes them a decidedly weird match for the party in 2024.”
  • Are we living through the opening credits of a sci-fi movie? Does Nikki Haley stand a chance in the GOP presidential primary? Which Dispatch staffer has the best dad-joke game? Adam, Esther, Price, and the Dispatch Politics team discussed all that and more on last night’s episode of Dispatch Live (🔒). Members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here.
  • On the site today, Price digs into the UFO incidents and Jonah writes on what he considers an unfortunate fad among both Democrats and Republicans right now: economic nationalism. 

Let Us Know

Any thoughts on Nikki Haley as a presidential contender? What’d you make of the themes she hit in her announcement video?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.