The derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in Ohio has captured the nation’s attention for weeks as government and local officials have struggled to contain the hazardous waste and provide answers to the public.
Nearly 40 cars flew off the tracks near East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3, with about 20 of them carrying hazardous materials, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The derailed cars sparked a massive fire, prompting authorities to order an evacuation of the area out of fears of an explosion. One of the chemicals leaked was vinyl chloride, a well-known cancer-causing substance. No injuries were reported.
The high-profile wreck has raised questions about the safety of other railroads that pass through communities around the country. In Ingham County, Michigan, several railway lines carrying both cargo and passengers cut through Lansing and East Lansing.
“We just have one round-trip Amtrak train come through per day,” said Owen Cruz, a station agent at Capital Area Multimodal Gateway in East Lansing. “It doesn’t sound like much but when you add it up that’s about 40,000 passengers a year. And then there’s the dozens of other freight trains that pass through the area every day.”
One of those lines runs to Potterville, a small town southwest of Lansing. Over Memorial Day weekend in 2002, 35 cars from a freight train jumped the tracks while it was passing through the establishment. The derailed cars contained more than 300,000 gallons of propane, enough to cause a disastrous explosion with just a spark. Because some of the cars were leaking or punctured, the sheriff ordered an immediate evacuation of the area and all roads leading into the town were blocked off.
“We didn’t hear about the evacuation taking place until one of our neighbors came over to tell us,” said Cheryl Reynolds, a resident of Potterville for the past 24 years. “We never saw the train since we had to go in the opposite direction but you could clearly tell that the air was hazy everywhere like a wildfire.”
Emergency responders quickly began burning off the propane in an effort to control and stop the toxic waste before it could cause significant harm to the surrounding environment and community.
“I was at lunch with a few friends when we started seeing cars flying down the road,” said Scott Reynolds, the husband of Cheryl Reynolds. “Word had spread pretty fast about what was going on so it didn’t take long for us to get our own families out too. You could kind of feel that this was a serious accident just from everyone’s body language.”
After an investigation, a faulty rail was to blame for the Potterville derailment and no injuries were sustained from the crash or its aftermath. As for the wreck in East Palestine, there is still a long road of explaining ahead.