The Ohio Train Derailment

On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed near the town of East Palestine, Ohio. Fifty cars derailed, ten of which carried hazardous chemicals. Federal investigators say a mechanical issue with a rail car axle caused the derailment.

A fire broke out in the rail cars, residents were evacuated, and the material in some of the cars was drained and set on fire. Draining the material prevented a BLEVE, a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion, which is what happens when tanks of liquid are heated in a fire. A breach in a hot tank like this releases both chemical energy when the liquid explodes and the heat energy as the liquid flashes instantly into a gas. These explosions are extremely powerful.

But then they had to do something with the liquid, so they burned it, producing a thick black cloud of smoke.

The fires are out, and people are returning to their homes.

The EPA is there, monitoring air quality.

The chemicals in the tank cars included vinyl chloride, the building block for the plastic polyvinyl chloride, which is used to make piping, plastic bottles, packaging, credit cards, and many other things.

The wreck and spill are an environmental disaster, but not of the magnitude proclaimed by some panic-mongers. As I read the EPA report, they have detected no dangerous levels of the chemicals themselves or their combustion products in the town. Some of the chemicals can be smelled at levels far below a danger level, like the odorant put into natural gas. Yes, hydrochloric acid is a product of vinyl chloride combustion. Yes, phosgene may be. Phosgene will decompose in water, so it was gone soon after the fires. The hydrochloric acid will have some acid rain effect. But there are no death clouds.

Vinyl chloride is a carcinogen, and so the particulate matter from that black cloud from the fires. The liquids have seeped into the ground and will have to be monitored. But maps showing the entire Ohio River watershed as being in danger are a vast exaggeration.

Norfolk Southern is fully responsible for this disaster. There are claims that last fall’s railroad strike demanded changes that would have avoided it. I haven’t looked into the specifics of that, but as a general rule, workers want safety and the bosses want money. Safety requires additional time, workers, and other expenditures. Norfolk Southern has offered $25,000 to East Palestine as compensation. That’s $5 each to the 5000 residents who evacuated. Lawsuits seem likely.

Deregulation, which the rail owners want, contributes to the lack of safety. Using vinyl chloride in a chemistry laboratory requires safety equipment and planning. Tank cares containing thousands of gallons of it should require more.

Here are a couple of people to follow who provide acerbic commentary and explanation of hazardous materials terminology and practice:

Funranium Labs

Dan Kaszeta

And, finally

Honestly, if I could insist on only two things being taught (and learned!) in elementary science, they would be 1) what molecules and atoms are and 2) the difference between mixing and chemical reaction.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

One comment

  1. Weftage · February 13

    You say the railroad messed up? That would have been my thought as well. But the Usual Suspects inform me that it’s all Pete Buttigieg’s fault. [insert eyeroll emoji]


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