East Palestine Train Derailment Response: The Role of the Water Professional in Emergencies

Brian Oram, Licenced Professional Geologist and Amy Lee, Environmental Consultant
Featured Water Professional

So, what is the role of the Water Professional during tragic events like the East Palestine train derailment?

The train derailment on February 3, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio is another example of a combination of conditions and problems that are plaguing the United States of America. During the early stages after the accident, the main objective is to understand the what, how, why, and current conditions as well as to determine how to first minimize the risk and further damage to life, the environment, and property. With the exception of the first responders and clean-up professionals, (i.e., the experts in responding to clean-up events that require health and safety and OSHA trained Hazwoper - Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response) professionals, my recommendation is to follow this process:

  1. Listen to emergency personnel, 
  2. Work to “Get the Facts”, 
  3. Always “Be a Professional” when assessing, and 
  4. “Tread Lightly” when responding or commenting.

In preparation for this article and working to “Get the Facts”, I read about 30 different published articles and reviewed government reports that all seemed to contain slightly different versions of the facts. Facts are elements that are corroborated across multiple relevant and reputable sources that are void of emotional terms or interpretations. It is important to identify the factual elements of the story before drawing conclusions or making public statements in any professional capacity.

From these articles, these are the facts I was able to compile:1

  • On Feb. 3, just before 9 p.m. ET, a Norfolk Southern train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio.
  • The train was traveling at about 47 mph and the maximum permissible speed is 50 miles per hour.
  • The train was pulling 150 rail cars and about 20 of the cars were listed in the manifest as carrying hazardous materials. A total of thirty-eight cars derailed and eleven of these cars carried hazardous chemicals with five of these cars containing vinyl chloride (a flammable poison). The other chemicals present in the train cars included ethylene glycol, monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate, benzene, and isobutylene.
  • The initial cause for the derailment was suspected to be a faulty wheel bearing on one rail car. There are three hot-box detectors along a 30-mile section near East Palestine. As the train passed the detectors, the wheel bearing temperature read 38° Fahrenheit, 103° Fahrenheit, and the final sensor read 253° Fahrenheit above ambient temperature.2
  • Note: Norfolk Southern safety guidelines do not require train operators to take action until wheel bearings reach 170° Fahrenheit above ambient temperature, but when a temperature of 200° Fahrenheit is reached, the operational procedure includes stopping the train immediately and removing the rail car(s) of concern.3,5

  • The environmental response team decided to complete a controlled explosion as a way to reduce the environmental and health risks related to vinyl chloride. On Feb. 6th, 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride were diverted to a trench for a controlled explosion which caused a fire that burned for 2 days. The fire caused the airborne release of a massive plume of black smoke that likely included:
    1. Char,
    2. solid residue,
    3. hydrogen chloride, and
    4. other gasses including some phosgene gas.
  • The hydrogen chloride that was released would likely chemically react in Earth’s atmosphere to create hydrochloric acid. The other gasses produced during this controlled explosion were carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and phosgene gas. Phosgene gas (carbonyl chloride) is a highly toxic, colorless gas with a musty odor. For perspective – phosgene was responsible for 85% of chemical weapons deaths in World War I. 4,7
  • Note:The presence of a gas is not the only factor that determines risk. For example, the individual Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Permissible Exposure Limits (PELS) reportedly safe level of exposure for hydrogen chloride is less than 5 ppm in air and phosgene gas is less than 0.1 ppm in air over an eight-hour exposure period.8,9

    PPM - “Parts of vapor or gas per million parts of contaminated air by volume at 25 °C and 760 torr (1 atmosphere) over a given time interval for that specific gas and not a mixture of gasses or other factors.”

When looking at exposure and health risks, it is important to know the concentration, exposure period, air pressure, other gasses present, and temperature. In addition, there are the toxicologic health risks to individuals for each released hazard risk and other individual person risk factors that may play a role in the acute or chronic health response. For example: the age of the individual, other exposure routes, genetic vulnerabilities, and other environmental or mitigating circumstances are factors that impart risk to a particular individual but not necessarily every individual person in a hazard release area. This is a lot of work for the Environmental Health and Safety Professionals as well as Toxicologic and Medical Professionals, so stay in your lane. 6

Looking back at the event history, the health and safety professionals will be asking questions like: “Was this “controlled detonation” really wise?” and “Was the public adequately informed that one severe risk was being replaced with a potentially other or additional risk factor?” In addition, there are a lot of other unanswered questions about the health and safety of humans and the environment like: “are the reported health concerns of the citizens related to the accidental release and is the response to the environmental conditions related to the controlled explosion or something else or both?” This is why the Environmental Health and Safety Professionals will be working with lawyers, toxicologists, medical professionals, first responders, and others with relevant expertise in a team-based approach to decision-making for the greater good of those in the area(s) impacted.

From the symptoms, it looks like the emergency solution, although meant to mitigate overall risks of the accident in its entirety, may be contributing significantly and detrimentally to the health of the citizens, but this is not a fact - it is a hypothesis. Yes, Water and Environmental Health and Safety Professionals are scientists and we must use the proper term ‘hypothesis’ when we are applying our professional knowledge to draw conclusions for which we have not scientifically tested.

As a professional, it is important to state the facts and what we know and do not know and we must provide the public with a fact-based response and information. From a water treatment or air exposure standard, we must remember that most of the point-of-use water treatment systems and even air purification systems are sized and tested assuming that the water and air meets some safe standard and their primary role is to “polish” the environment not “purify” the environment. This was why my company’s response to this event was to publish an “educational” based article that led the public to the facts and information and not to any misinformation or fear-mongering outlets. We, as a company of professionals, are happy to work with and provide technical assistance to any citizen, local grassroots organization, or local government agency. This is my approach to the “Tread Lightly” portion of the process. There is a lot we do not know! And, it is okay to acknowledge that as well.

After reading another 10 articles and watching videos (See video critical thinking review below) of individuals causing oil sheens to be displaced from stream sediments, individuals sampling a stream inappropriately by mixing up the settled sediment and wearing inefficient personal protective equipment for the response level, then claiming the samples are valid because they are using a certified laboratory to complete the analysis - it is clear that the public does need the Unbiased Water Professional to be involved in order to identify these deficiencies in test and sampling protocols that can result in misinformation and biased study results regardless of the qualifications of the laboratory completing the analysis. 

It is my opinion that this and other cases related to the industrial release and accidents of this nature clearly show that we have a problem in the USA.

  1. Historical land-use and urban development plans that are not consistent with the nature and extent of hazard exposures and risks with current industrialization and a modern society. This creates a combination of sub-problems including:
    1. We have urbanization that has encroached on historically industrial-use-only sites putting people and homes much closer to industrial locations where risks are present, and
    2. We have old historical industrial sites, that were built along stream corridors,that put today’s downstream users at a greater risk in cases of a release. These risks were not there when these industrial sites were planned and built and we have not implemented a plan in the USA to relocate or shore-up these facilities appropriately to the level of current acceptable modern industrial-use risks.
  2. Industry and government agency responses seem to only be reactive and not proactive in planning to benefit society, and there is a lot of political finger-pointing along ideological lines. What seems clear is that action is needed to improve our transportation monitoring systems and we must become more proactive and invest in our infrastructure. For example, the derailment accident begs us to question things like: Why does a country like Lithuania have a better rail system than the USA? Why is the maximum speed limit not associated with the temperature of the bearings? and Why Only 3 sensors? How many sensors are truly sufficient along a rail line to mitigate risks? Who is responsible for identifying population density risks when new development proposals are suggested? What is the level of risk? etc.
  3. The lay public is very distrustful of industry, government agencies, and in some cases professionals, but in many respects too comfortable with the advocates (i.e., groups or agencies that have a larger agenda); ideological views are getting more attention than facts or information.10

My suggestion to the water professionals and our industry of environmental professionals who approach a crisis from a scientific basis is as follows: Get the Facts: learn the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the situation, and “Tread Lightly” but not quietly. Meaning – word choice matters, stating facts matters, and knowing when to say ‘I don’t know’, or not to speak at all matters towards the greater-good of the profession as a whole. We as Water Professionals can play a significant role informing the public, providing guidance and information related to necessary updates to local and state land-development regulations and infrastructure needs, educating journalists, and helping industry and business both monitor and protect the public and the environment. We also have a duty to care for the people in the situation and to protect their livelihoods in the environment. The professional  must be balanced, level-headed, and always operate with integrity.

Fact or Anecdotal? | A Critical Thinking Review by the KnowYourH2O Team

Our intent is not to review the media source itself, but to provide an objective review of the content presented.

PBS News Hour

NTSB releases preliminary report on Ohio derailment that led to toxic chemical spill
View Video

Facts: A key clue that may point to the reason the train derailed was that the crew tried to stop the train immediately after a critical sensor warning from an axle arrived just moments before the train derailed. This is a clue and has not been ruled by the NTSB as the only reason for the derailment.

Facts: The temperature of the wheel bearing was not close to the threshold set by the railroad industry until right before the derailment. NTSB will investigate if this threshold needs to change or if there is a need to install more detectors.

Facts: 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride spilled which is linked to health concerns.

Facts: EPA tests of water and air show safe levels. The Water Professional could help to set the context of these tests by reviewing the data and placing it in the context of safe-drinking water levels.

Facts: The train was traveling 47mph which was below the speed limit.

Anecdotal: An interview with a resident regarding 'attaching to water' and 'where is it going' is alarmist in that it does not provide the context for the information and it is an interview with emotional local residents who might not have had the context explained to them in a manner that makes sense to them. The Water Professional could help frame this context and explain why they might be alarmed.

Anecdotal: Reporting indicates that residents are concerned as to why officials opted for a controlled burn of the chemicals. It is not clear how many residents are truly concerned. This is a piece of the reporting where the Water Professional could explain the risks of the options to set the context for why officials chose the path they did.

Facts: The officials decided on a controlled burn because one of the temperatures indicated a tanker had a risk of a catastrophic explosion. This is an area where the Water Professional could again set the context for the options and risks involved to identify why officials chose this path.

Anecdotal and Political Content - The Secretary of Transportation places blame on the railroad companies stopping regulations from occurring. The Water Professional needs to steer clear of this piece of the report because there is no evidence that the regulations are strong enough or too weak to have handled this situation better. This piece of the content lends no credence to the problem at large. Others in the political arena who feel the need to comment in these circumstances are also not lending credence to the problem or solutions. This part of the content needs to be placed in the context of the political climate at-large and that this is a prime opportunity for some to gain a spotlight from tragedy. The Water Professional need not be a part of this.

Facts: NTSB will investigate sensors, alarms, and rules set by railroads.

CBS News

"Disgusting" conditions in waterway near East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, local woman says
View Video

Anecdotal: It is hard to identify actual facts from this video. The Water Professional could easily discern that the surface sheen presented in the video could have been present prior to the derailment and not at all associated with the derailment. Similarly - a dead fish is not evidence that the fish died due to contamination from a spill.

Anecdotal: Location of where the resident was poking is irrelevant to evidence a Water Professional investigating the same scene would potentially identify.

Anecdotal: More sheen 2-days later and smell is still not evidence that that situation was not present prior to the derailment or caused by the derailment. Perhaps this is the first time the resident has looked at this stream quality with a critical eye, for example. The smell may be ambient from the burn off of the spill in the air and not actually from the water.

The Water Professional would identify that the entirety of this video does not add credence to facts around the problem or solutions.


'We're afraid': Ohio residents after toxic spill
View Video

Fact: Two residents living close to train tracks after a train derailment do not trust the train.

Anecdotal: The resident interviewed who says they need to move - Do they really need to move or are their emotions so high that they feel they need to move? The Water Professional would identify that this might be for drama in reporting vs. actual displacement.

Anecdotal: Sheen on water. Again similar to the CBS report - this could have been the stream quality prior to the derailment and not necessarily related to the spill from the derailment. A Water Professional could identify via testing what was causing the sheen.

Anecdotal: Indicating that officials do not have the best interest of the public at large does not lend credence to the problem or solutions post-accident. The Water Professional needs to understand that residents are emotional but should not feed into or create a scene that increases these emotional responses unless facts are gathered that lend credence to the situation requiring the public to be concerned in order to protect their own safety.

Fact: The governor indicated that Ohio River Pollution related to the spill/accident had dissipated for the 5 million people who depend on it for drinking water. State testing indicated that contaminated water never entered municipal drinking water systems. The Water Professional could help verify these facts via a review of publicly available test data or via a FOIL request. The governor is relying on science to determine safety but also understands resident emotional concerns.

Anecdotal: A store clerk indicates water sales are up because it is worse than anyone thought it was. A Water Professional would understand that this is a non-scientist data-based emotional opinion and not a fact, that 'it is worse than anyone thought it was'. Of course, it is bad - there was an accident and harmful chemicals were spilled, but the news presenting an average citizen opinion as fact is part of what leads to more management of the anecdotes rather than facts after an accident of this nature.

Fact: The Biden administration is sending medical personnel and toxicologists to perform testing and assessments. The Water Professional would understand that this testing has not yet been completed and would understand the implications and/or risks to the water supply. As such, the Water Professional would be a perfect complement to the government team in helping to test and provide evidence-based information.

Other Blog Posts for Water Professionals or on East Palestine (add appropriate links)


1. What to know about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

2. Here's the most thorough explanation yet for the train derailment in East Palestine

3. NTSB Preliminary Report: What happened before train derailment? 

4. A Brief History of Chemical War 

5. The Ohio toxic train wreck was ‘100% preventable’ – but there’s no evidence the crew did anything wrong, investigators say 

6. Biden DOJ Sues Norfolk Southern for 'Unlawfully Polluting the Nation's Waterways'

7. Fire Properties of Polyvinyl Chloride

8. Medical Management Guidelines for Vinyl Chloride

9. Department of Labor - Permissible Exposure Limits – Annotated Tables

10. Despite government response, East Palestine residents feel forgotten

If you need help, please Contact Us. We can help educate professionals, assist with community outreach, and assist with public education. If you have a good story or case study, please send it to us so we can post it as a lesson learned for other professionals and the public. 

Brian Oram is the founder of KnowYourH2O.com and oversees its ongoing development. Mr. Oram is a licensed professional geologist, certified professional soil scientist, licensed well driller, and certified sewage enforcement officer. His services include conducting certified baseline water quality testing, and training water samplers in proper sampling and chain of custody practices. He is the owner of B.F. Environmental Consultants, and a proud member of the Water Quality Association.

Amy Lee is a ceramic arts enthusiast who does Environmental and IT consulting (in that order). She also thinks SAP, ESRI, and Salesforce have the potential to change the face of IT in business operations. She is the newest member of the KnowYourH2O Team and is responsible for our upgraded Surface Water Quality Index Calculator.