Tracking the Chemicals in the East Palestine, Ohio, Train Derailment and Fire
Tankers of vinyl chloride were going halfway across the country, government records show, a trip highlighting the risks of transporting chemicals as plastics production grows.
When a freight train carrying more than 100,000 gallons of hazardous chemicals derailed and burned in East Palestine, Ohio, this year, it set off a panic over rail safety and the toxic fallout for communities downwind.
But less has been known about the origins of the chemicals themselves and their intended destination.
Much of the train’s vinyl chloride freight — which was ultimately incinerated by emergency responders to avert a wider explosion — came from a chemicals plant in La Porte, just outside Houston, Texas, that is run by OxyVinyls, the chemical arm of Occidental Petroleum, according to the shipment records released by the Environmental Protection Agency. The chemicals were on a 1,600-mile journey to an Oxy plant in Pedricktown, N.J., that makes plastic used in PVC flooring.
The details of the cargo were included in an administrative order filed last month by the E.P.A. that was based on shipment data provided by Oxy and other shippers. Oxy had more than 700,000 pounds of vinyl chloride on the train that derailed, the records show. An E.P.A. official on Monday confirmed the accuracy of the information.
Tracing the Norfolk Southern train’s volatile load to its source sheds light on the environmental and health risks of the nation’s soaring manufacturing and use of plastics. The chemicals shipped by Oxy were key ingredients in PVC, a rigid material widely used in water pipes, furniture, floor tiles and packaging.
Plastic manufacturing is booming in America, fueled by cheap and plentiful shale gas. It has become an increasingly important business for Occidental, a major oil company based in Houston, as nations start moving away from the burning of fossil fuels, the main driver of climate change.
Texas and Louisiana, in particular, have become global chemical hubs as oil and gas companies expand their plastics production to offset the possibility of declining demand for oil as fuel.
While tiny East Palestine has drawn considerable attention for the inferno and its potential health consequences, communities nationwide are regularly grappling with the health and safety implications of the surge in chemical manufacturing and transportation.
Last year at Oxy’s La Porte plant, a midnight explosion and fire drew a major response by emergency personnel. More recently, some of the firefighting wastewater from the Ohio train fire, which contained toxic chemicals, was trucked back to a processing facility in Deer Park, Texas, which borders La Porte. And in 2012, a train carrying vinyl chloride — bound for the same plastics plant in New Jersey that was the destination of the Ohio train — derailed and plunged into a creek, releasing 23,000 gallons of the chemical and prompting evacuations of nearby homes.
OxyVinyls plans to spend $1.1 billion to expand and upgrade its La Porte plant, the company said in regulatory filings last year. Shintech, the world’s largest producer of PVC, and whose shipments also burned in the Ohio disaster, according to freight records, is spending more than $2 billion to build out its operations in Texas and Louisiana.
Oxy officials didn’t respond to several requests for comment.
Overall, chemicals companies have invested more than $100 billion in new or expanded plants since 2010, with another $99 billion in the works, according to a tally from the American Chemistry Council. Much of that investment has been in plastics.
As plastic production has proliferated, more hazardous materials have been on the move. According to data from the Association for American Railroads, rail shipments of chemicals used in plastic production grew by about a third over the past decade.
Chemicals have become a particularly important business for railways because one of their traditional mainstays, coal transportation, has fallen steeply with the drastic decline in the mining and burning of coal. Over the past decade, coal traveling by rail fell by almost half. Agricultural rail cargo, like grain and soybeans, has stayed flat.
While derailments have declined since the 1970s, the costs of derailments of trains carrying hazardous materials have increased. Most accidents, injuries and deaths involving hazardous materials in transit happen on the road, and incidents there have jumped by more than 50 percent since 2012, according to Bureau of Transportation statistics.
For residents at the starting points for these shipments, concerns over exposure to cancer-causing substances have long been a constant.
“You get headaches, you get nauseous, and you get chronic respiratory issues that affect you,” said Sema Hernandez, a community organizer who lives with her four children about a half-mile from Oxy’s La Porte facility. Headline-grabbing accidents like the Ohio derailment may bring temporary attention to chemical hazards, she said, but for communities like hers with chemical plants as close neighbors, they are a daily threat.
“It could be a normal day, and all of a sudden there’s a siren that goes off that tells you, this is not a drill, to shelter in place,” she said. “That can happen at any time.”
Though making plastics doesn’t typically involve burning the oil used in manufacturing them, the production process brings with it other potential hazards. Since the 1970s, for example, numerous studies have found that workers exposed to vinyl chloride, which is made from fossil fuels and is primarily used to manufacture PVC, developed malignant liver cancers. Vinyl chloride has also been linked to brain and lung cancers, lymphoma and leukemia.
An analysis published this month by Toxic-Free Future, a nonprofit that advocates safer products and chemicals, found that PVC plastics plants reported releasing more than 400,000 pounds of vinyl chloride into the air in 2021. It also found that people of color were overrepresented in communities near such plants, making up more than 60 percent of the almost 400,000 people who live within three miles of a vinyl-chloride, PVC-manufacturing or PVC-waste-disposal facility, compared with the 40 percent share they make up of the general population.
United Nations officials said in 2021 that pollution-linked cancer risks in predominantly African American districts near a cluster of petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River far surpassed those in districts with predominantly white populations. Last month, residents of St. James Parish, La., at the heart of that region, sued the local council for a pattern of racist land use practices that has placed petrochemical plants in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
In recent days, an unrelated fire at a plastics recycling plant in Indiana highlighted the risks at the end of the plastics life cycle. Recyclers nationwide have been struggling to process all the growing supply of discarded plastic, which can end up in piles at facilities in what experts have long called a fire hazard.
Some cities in the United States and elsewhere, including New York, Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, have adopted policies aimed at phasing out the use of PVC and other products linked to pollution, limiting public purchases and mandating alternatives. A handful of countries, including Canada, Spain and South Korea, have restricted or banned the use of PVC packaging, and legislators have pursued a similar ban in California.
Sweden, which adopted restrictions on PVC use almost three decades ago, is phasing out its use altogether, for example, by replacing PVC packaging with less toxic kinds of plastic, including plant-based materials.