A Norfolk Southern train passes underneath a bridge on February 25, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio.

A Norfolk Southern train passes underneath a bridge on February 25, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio

(Photo: Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

Anti-Plastic Coalition: East Palestine Disaster Exposes Need for 'Systemic Change'

"We need systemic reforms to stop the petrochemical industry from having carte blanche to profit off of poisoning people and the planet," says the international Break Free From Plastic alliance.

One month after a fiery train crash in East Palestine, Ohio sparked an ongoing environmental and public health crisis, an anti-plastic coalition on Friday highlighted how the petrochemical industry poisons communities across the United States and called for "systemic change."

The Norfolk Southern-owned train that derailed and ignited near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border on February 3 was overloaded with hazardous materials, many of them derived from fossil fuels. To avert a catastrophic explosion, authorities released and burned vinyl chloride—a carcinogenic petrochemical used to make plastic—from five tanker cars, provoking residents' fears about the long-term health impacts of toxic air pollution and groundwater contamination.

"This is a plastics and petrochemical disaster," the global Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) coalition said Friday in a statement.

According to the coalition:

A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that the train derailment was caused by a hot axle that heated one of the train cars carrying polypropylene plastic pellets, according to NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. These plastic pellets serve as the pre-production materials that corporations manufacture into shampoo bottles, plastic cups, and other single-use items. The highly combustible, fossil fuel-derived pellets ignited the initial fire aboard the Norfolk Southern train, which led to its derailment.

In addition to the pellets, yet another plastic building block is at the heart of this disaster: vinyl chloride. Vinyl chloride is a known human carcinogen used almost exclusively to produce polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC plastic, which is often turned into pipes, flooring, shower curtains, and even plastic food wrap. Not only is vinyl chloride toxic and harmful itself, Norfolk Southern's burning of the chemical likely resulted in dioxins, one of the most persistent and toxic chemicals, even at low levels of exposure.

In response to public pressure, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday ordered Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins, a class of highly toxic industrial byproducts that the agency had previously opted to ignore in the East Palestine disaster zone.

"While we're glad to see this announcement, we wish it had come sooner," said Graham Hamilton, U.S. policy officer at BFFP. "Justice delayed is justice denied, and we expect more from an administration that claims to prioritize environmental justice."

Mike Schade, director of Toxic-Free Future's Mind the Store campaign, said that "the EPA must not only test for dioxins in soil, but also in indoor dust, sediments, fish, and on farms impacted by the massive plume."

"Importantly, the EPA should be conducting the testing itself and/or hiring independent scientists to test for dioxins, rather than requiring the community of East Palestine to rely on Norfolk Southern for that accountability," said Schade.

"This disaster is yet another painful reminder of the dangers of making, transporting, using, and disposing of chemicals in plastics, especially polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic," Schade added. "Governments, retailers, and brands must redouble their efforts to phase out PVC plastic and other highly hazardous plastics and chemicals and move towards safer solutions."

The U.S. is home to more than 1,000 train derailments per year, and according to one estimate, the country is averaging one chemical disaster every two days.

Low-income communities in the Ohio River Valley and along the Gulf Coast are disproportionately harmed by the petrochemical industry.

"These communities subsidize the cost of cheap disposable plastic at the fenceline of oil rigs, petrochemical plants, incinerators, and the trains and trucks used for transporting the toxic and deadly chemicals," said Yvette Arellano, the founder and director of Fenceline Watch, a Texas-based advocacy group and BFFP member.

"The price we pay is with our lives, from shortened lifespans [to] reproductive harm [and] developmental issues; these toxics trespass our bodies and harm our communities for generations," added Arellano, whose organization helped pressure the EPA to halt the 1,300-mile shipment of contaminated wastewater from East Palestine to the Houston area, where it had been slated to be injected underground.

"The petrochemical industry is inherently unsafe. Even standard operations pollute and damage communities, and regulators continue to fail to do the bare minimum to hold polluters accountable."

As BFFP pointed out, the ongoing East Palestine disaster "is not the only petrochemical crisis" hurting residents of the Ohio River Valley.

"Less than 15 miles from the derailment site," a new Shell facility in Beaver County, Pennsylvania "has received numerous violations and exceeded its annual emissions limits since coming online in November of 2022," the coalition pointed out.

As Andie from the Eyes on Shell watchdog group observed: "With the community already on edge, just one week following the release and burn in East Palestine, Shell activated an enormous emergency flare which, without warning, continued flaring for hours. The derailment and emergency flare are terrifying reminders of the risks the petrochemical industry poses to our community every single day."

Earthworks campaigner Anaïs Peterson stressed that "the petrochemical industry is inherently unsafe."

"Even standard operations pollute and damage communities," said Peterson, "and regulators continue to fail to do the bare minimum to hold polluters accountable."

Amanda Kiger of River Valley Organizing (RVO)—a Columbiana County-based group that has been working to support East Palestine residents since the derailment—said that "nobody should have their entire lives upended because Norfolk Southern and makers of these hazardous chemicals put their profits ahead of the safety of our communities and our country."

"With people developing rashes and breathing problems, it's clear people are still being exposed to dangerous chemicals," said Kiger. "Norfolk Southern should give residents the resources to relocate and should pay for independent testing of the soil, water, and air, as well as medical exams and follow-up for years to come."

Ultimately, BFFP argued, "we need systemic reforms to stop the petrochemical industry from having carte blanche to profit off of poisoning people and the planet."

Despite BFFP's demands for a robust, legally binding global plastics treaty that prohibits corporations from manufacturing an endless stream of toxic single-use items, Inside Climate News reported this week that the initial proposal from the Biden administration's delegation to the United Nations was described as "low ambition" and "underwhelming" because it "sidesteps calls for cuts in production, praises the benefits of plastics, and focuses on national priorities versus global mandates."

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