Jobe Publishing inquires
Allyson Dix and Mary Beth Sallee
Residents are growing increasingly frustrated in a small town nearly 500 miles away after feeling the fallout from a freight train derailment carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio.
On Feb. 3, the train, operated by Norfolk Southern Railway Company, derailed with some of the rail cars carrying hazardous materials including a highly volatile colorless gas called vinyl chloride.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in a press release, said a preliminary investigation found a surveillance video revealing “what appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final state of overheat failure moments before the derailment.” The matter was “100% preventable,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy in a press conference. She also claimed the derailment was “no accident.”
Over 2,000 residents were ordered to evacuate within a mile radius two days later and those with children who refused were subject to arrest. The next day, additional evacuations were ordered before officials torched the hazardous-laden rail cars where over 115,000 gallons of flammable, toxic gas burned into the skies over East Palestine in a “controlled burn.”
The evacuation order was lifted on Feb. 8. Two days later, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in a letter to Norfolk, stated several hazardous chemicals were found in creeks nearby including vinyl chloride. The letter also notified the railway company that the financial burden of the entire matter would fall on Norfolk.
Nearly 44,000 animals died, mostly aquatic life.
Weeks later, Norfolk officials attended a town hall for the first time and were met with angry residents of East Palestine. The community isn’t holding back from voicing their concerns about short- and long-term effects of the hazardous chemicals released into their neighborhoods. One man said his children and grandchildren will pay the cost of the toxic substances the communities have been exposed to.
The EPA caved to residents’ demands to test for dioxins due to burning the rail cars and has ordered Norfolk to test for the highly-toxic chemical that causes a plethora of health issues, even cancer. It is well known burning certain chemicals like vinyl chloride will bring about dioxins. It is also unclear why those tests were never initiated at the onset and many speculate the reason is because officials know they will be found.
However, officials continue to claim the air and water are safe and a variety of testing methods are taking place. Yet, distrust continues to build from residents who continue to report ongoing medical issues since the fiery crash.
Around 4.85 million gallons of liquid wastewater and 2,980 tons of solid waste have been removed from the derailment site so far, according to Ohio Emergency Management Agency on March 10. The hazardous waste is being hauled to other states including Michigan, Indiana, and Tennessee.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are introducing legislation to improve rail safety The Railway Safety Act of 2023 is intended to improve a number of provisions in an attempt to prevent similar scenarios in the future.
Norfolk CEO Alan Shaw testified on March 9 before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and in opening remarks said he is “deeply sorry” and vows to “make it right” before noting the financial assistance from Norfolk to those affected by the derailment and the first responders. However, some committee members pushed Shaw for more specific commitments to East Palestine residents similar to what the rail company has offered its own employees and Shaw’s replies were often times vague.
In a statement on March 10, Ohio’s governor, who appears to provide daily updates, said the needs of East Palestine are “getting lost in all this red tape, and piles of hazardous soil must not continue to sit stagnant” before calling on officials to remove the “dangerous waste” more quickly.
Residents continue to report medical symptoms via surveys, some through door-to-door visits by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The most common ones found in an After Chemical Exposure survey include headaches (72%), anxiety (57%), coughing (52%), fatigue/tiredness (49%), and irritation, pain, and burning of the skin (47%).
Officials have implemented many health and environmental resources to the community including a walk-in health assessment clinic at a local church and a free mental health trauma mobile unit. Medical provider webinars have been held to assist medical providers as they help community members and round-table discussions between the state’s agriculture department and farmers.
As for now, residents in East Palestine continue to sound the alarm and it appears they aren’t backing down wanting more transparency and assurances their town is safe to live in.
An aerial view of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio taken on Feb. 5. Photo/ National Transportation Safety Board
Local officials chime in
Many in the South Central Kentucky region have been asking if the disaster could affect the area since Ohio is a neighboring state to the north.
The Ohio River is a major source of drinking water for more than five million people and the Green River is a tributary of the Ohio, which is also a water source for parts of Hart and Metcalfe counties. However, due to a variety of factors including watersheds and the flow direction of water streams and rivers, affected water from East Palestine would have to flow upstream to make it to our communities.
In e-mail inquiries to local water and emergency management experts, most provided thorough details for Jobe Publishing, Inc. to share with readers with the exception of Caveland Environmental Authority (CEA).
Glasgow Water Company (GWC) General Manager Joe Watson said, “The current disaster at East Palestine should not affect our customers’ drinking water.”
GWC treats water from the Barren River Lake Reservoir and Beaver Creek Reservoir Dam. They service the majority of Barren County with CEA serving Park City and Cave City areas. CEA also purchases water from Green River Valley Water District (GRV). GRV also serves the northern part of the Hiseville area.
Emily Hoffman, Assistant Plant Manager at GRV, said that although Green River is a tributary of the Ohio River, this area is in a completely different watershed, and is a nearly nonexistent likelihood contaminates would reach local water sources.
Hoffman explained federal and state officials are working closely with the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation and many scientists are working to collect samples of water from the Ohio River. “Any detection of the two chemicals from the train derailment found in the water (in Ohio or along the Ohio River) has been minuscule. We also work closely with these regulatory bodies, so any changes or possible adverse changes to our source water would be brought to our attention immediately and a plan of action would come along with that,” she added.
Hoffman said it is basically a compliance of trusting those specified regulatory bodies to monitor that situation and let GRV know if the water is affected.
As for the protocol that would be taken if a train derailment were to happen now in Hart County, Hoffman explained that GRV would turn to its wellhead protection plan. “Our plan says in the event of a spill, we would shut off either the river or spring (depending on which is affected) and pull solely from the unaffected source,” Hoffman said.
GWC’s Watson also explained if such an incident occurred, steps would be taken through a combination of testing and treatment.
“We have a state-verified microbiology lab on-site and run tests daily,” Watson explained, “We also utilize other labs to test for certain contaminants” In the event of contamination, GWC would test more frequently to determine if raw water was contaminated and at what concentration level before creating an action plan specific to a scenario.
GWC has protocols in place to prepare and combat likely and unlikely scenarios that may jeopardize the quality of our water source. “Many chemical contaminants would require adding carbon to the treatment process, which we currently utilize now,” Watson said.
Scott Young, Executive Director of the Kentucky Rural Water Association and former general manager of Glasgow Water Company, told Jobe Publishing that locals face no risks from Ohio’s train derailment when it comes to our drinking water.
“Barren, Metcalfe, and Hart Counties were never at risk for contamination because none of the public water systems that serve those counties use the Ohio River or its groundwater basin for their drinking water source,” Young explained.
“More specifically, the public drinking water utilities that serve these counties withdraw water from Barren River Lake, Barren River, and Green River,” he added.
The East Palestine watershed drains into the Ohio River basin and one of the biggest drinking water providers that draw water from the Ohio River is Louisville Water Company.
Metcalfe Emergency Director Emory Kidd said water runoff from our areas actually flows toward the Ohio River instead of it flowing into our water systems.
No railways cross through Metcalfe County, but they do in Barren and Hart, and if such a catastrophe happened in either county, Kidd said Metcalfe could very well have adverse effects similar to areas surrounding East Palestine.
Kidd pointed out that Louie B. Nunn parkway and I-65 are routes for hazardous materials as well. However, Kidd said for him to say no effects could reach South Central Kentucky would be overstating.
“I don’t foresee any major effects…what I do believe to be fact is that everything that happens has the potential to have an effect, even if as small as a regulation change,” Kidd said.
No stranger to train wrecks
Train wrecks and derailments aren’t completely strangers to the tri-county area.
On June 13 of 1966, a freight train derailed just outside of downtown Horse Cave. The cargo on some of the train’s cars included containers of chemicals that were headed to the U.S. Army Terminal Command facility in New Orleans.
On the day of the derailment, officials did not disclose what those chemicals were, stating to reporters and locals that the train was transporting “…a chemical that was harmful to both humans and animals.”
Albert and Catherine Wilkins had a home and property located just yards from the railroad track where the incident occurred. The damaged barrels of chemicals from the derailment were disposed of in a sinkhole on their property. In other news sources, it was stated that neither Albert nor Catherine knew what those chemicals were, nor did they want them disposed of on their property. However, they were supposedly informed by CSX railroad company that it had permission from the government to do so.
Albert and Catherine’s son, Larry Wilkins, was a teenager at that time and visited the wreckage on the day of the derailment.
As an adult, Larry married and continued to live on his family’s property. In 1991, 25 years after the train derailment, he was diagnosed with a rare cancer known as non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Because of his rapidly declining health, Larry was admitted to a hospital. While there, a doctor asked his wife, Cathy Wilkins, if her husband had been exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Agent Orange was a tactical herbicide mixture used by the United States military in the Vietnam War as a supposed way to clear out jungle vegetation during military operations. Much of it contained a dangerous contaminant called dioxin. Agent Orange was known to cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as well as other cancers and illnesses, in Vietnam veterans.
Larry died in 1991 due to complications from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He was only 41 years old.
But Wilkins had not served in Vietnam. However, he was there the day of the train derailment and his family’s property was the site where the cargo chemicals were disposed of.
The chemicals that were on the train the day of the 1966 derailment in Horse Cave included several 55-gallon barrels of Agent Orange. The toxic chemicals from the damaged barrels were poured into a sinkhole on the Wilkins’s property and covered with dirt. That sinkhole also drained into Hidden River Cave.
In 1991, Cathy’s lawyers began the investigation to hold the CSX railroad company responsible for their lack of transparency, their disregard and poor handling of the toxic chemicals, and for her husband’s death. The sinkhole where the Agent Orange was dumped was somewhat excavated, although not fully. Because Agent Orange was an herbicide mixture, traces of it were not likely to be found after over two decades. However, labels, crushed containers, and other pieces of evidence were found that proved that train cargo was buried there and the derailment did occur.
During the investigation, a portion of land near the railroad tracks was also excavated. Bromochloromethane, another toxic chemical, was discovered to still be in the dirt 25 years after the train derailment.
Soon after the trial against the CSX railroad company began, CSX offered a settlement and Cathy Wilkins accepted.
It is believed that other cancer cases in the Horse Cave area may possibly be linked to the train derailment of 1966 as well.
The events that occurred on June 13, 1966, in Horse Cave have not been forgotten by those who knew Larry Wilkins and were there to witness the derailment. Ned Hill, a musician from Horse Cave, penned a song called “Larry Wilkins & the Great Train Derailment of ’66”. The song and video can be found on the Ned Hill Music Facebook page and also on the Ned Hill Music YouTube channel.