The Upper Ohio River Valley has been layered in industrial pollution for centuries, and residents are fed up.

by Eve Andrews, Grist

Chris Laderer was 34 days into his tenure as chief of the volunteer fire department in Darlington, Pennsylvania, when the station received a call that a train had caught fire in the neighboring town of East Palestine, just over the state border in Ohio. Laderer assumed that an engine had overheated, but as the crew pulled out of the station he saw signs of something far more disastrous.

“We could see the glow and plume of smoke from our station, and we’re 4 miles from the scene,” he recalled. “We realized we’re getting something much bigger than what we anticipated.”

Factory, steel mill, Cleveland Ohio

When Laderer’s team arrived, alongside the fire departments from roughly 80 other towns across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, they found 38 cars of a 150-car train splayed along the tracks, with some emitting flames that smelled, as Laderer described it, of burning plastic. They would learn in the days that followed that 11 cars contained hazardous chemicals, including the highly toxic compounds vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, which are used in the manufacturing of common plastics.

By Monday, three days after the February 3 derailment, the Norfolk Southern railroad company had sent in their own officials and contractors to perform a controlled burn-off of the vinyl chloride. The tactic was meant to prevent, as much as possible, more than 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride from evaporating into the air and seeping into the soil and creek beds surrounding the train, although an as-yet-unknown quantity of it already had. (“Either we were going to blow it up, or it blows up itself,” Trent Conaway, the mayor of East Palestine, explained at a town hall the next week by way of illustrating a frustrating lack of options.)

But the burn didn’t go quite as planned. A towering, bulbous cloud of black smoke erupted from the train in the explosion and then spread over the surrounding area like a pool of oil, where it hung in the low atmosphere for hours and hours. Experts have attributed the smoke’s stubborn refusal to dissipate to a weather phenomenon called an inversion, where warm air that rises into the atmosphere after a sunny day traps the cold air coming off the ground as night falls. “The smoke that was supposed to stay up started banking down a bit on the area,” Laderer explained.

Jeremy Woods, a mechanic for the Darlington-based trucking company and repair shop Lync, described the scent that permeated the air all of Monday night as that of charred PVC pipe, but with a hint of chlorine that reminded him of the YMCA pool. Trisha Blinkiewicz, whose home sits about 4 miles east of the derailment, went to dinner in nearby Chippewa, Pennsylvania, on that same Monday evening. She found the town buried in a low-lying fog that felt thick on the skin, with a distinct, abrasive smell of burnt plastic.

The train that crashed in East Palestine derailed about 20 miles northeast of its destination of Conway, Pennsylvania, one of the industrial towns and small cities that line the Ohio River as it flows west from its mouth in Pittsburgh. The Upper Ohio River Valley — which stretches, roughly speaking, from that mouth down to where West Virginia meets the tip of Kentucky — has been the site of proliferating petrochemical development over the past decade, as oil and gas companies turn their attention away from fuel and toward a much richer prospect: plastics.

Ethane gas fracked from the Marcellus Shale, which extends across Pennsylvania into the eastern edge of Ohio and northern West Virginia, can be “cracked” into ethylene, a flammable gas critical to the production  of plastics used for packaging, bottles, and electrical insulation, among other products. And all of the infrastructure that is required for every step of plastic production and transport — wells, pipelines, refineries, ports, plants — has spread like a spider’s web over the region.

The accelerating petrochemical development is simply the newest incarnation of industrial exploitation for a region that has been plagued by legacy pollution since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The pressing question is whether the people who have lived here for generations have hit their breaking point, and whether they feel empowered to demand more from the corporations that threaten their homes and the politicians that enable them.

“Honestly, I never expected this big an incident to happen in my entire life, let alone my first month as fire chief,” said Laderer. “And Norfolk Southern are not telling us a lot, and they’ve got me questioning things.”

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