#20 – Derailment Furor Ignores Alarming Frequency of Toxic Chemical Spills

by Shealeigh

After a Norfolk Southern train filled with hazardous chemicals derailed outside the town of East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, 2023, causing a toxic inferno and a mass evacuation, corporate news media provided around-the-clock coverage. TV correspondents dutifully interviewed displaced residents, attended press briefings about the disaster, and interviewed irate politicians, such as Ohio governor Mike DeWine and others. Yet for all the attention TV networks such as CNN and Fox focused on the accident and the thousands of gallons of toxic vinyl chloride it released, establishment media failed to report adequately on the frequency with which such chemical spills occur and the danger that routine chemical releases pose to millions of Americans.

Citing research by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, Carey Gillam reported for the Guardian that 470 toxic chemical releases occurred in the United States between April 2020 and February 2023, roughly one incident every two days. Although the incidents the CPCD tallied varied in severity, in each case they involved “the accidental release of chemicals deemed to pose potential threats to human and environmental health.”

One example detailed in Gillam’s article was a September 2022 spill of caustic substances at a recycling plant in California, which sent nine people to the hospital and prompted the evacuation of hundreds more. Another example cited was the rupture in December 2022 of a pipeline in northern Kansas that flooded the surrounding area with “588,000 gallons of diluted bitumen crude oil.” Hundreds of workers are still trying to mitigate the impacts of that accident.

Although ten of the spills during the past two years identified by CPCD involved rail accidents, most toxic chemical releases occur at facilities where chemicals are manufactured and stored. The Government Accountability Office has estimated there are twelve thousand such facilities in the United States and that roughly two hundred million people are at “regular risk” of accidental exposure to dangerous chemicals. Many of those at greatest risk are “people of color, or otherwise disadvantaged communities,” Gillam reported.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data reveals there were roughly 160 accidents per year at chemical manufacturing and storage facilities between 2004 and 2013 and that the severity of accidental chemical releases is only getting worse. The EPA pushed for regulatory changes designed to enhance the safety of those living near chemical processing and storage faculties. However, Gillam reported, big business lobbyists such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council, and the American Petroleum Institute have “pushed back against stronger regulations.”

Other independent news outlets have covered the increasing frequency of toxic chemical spills. For instance, in March 2023, the environmental news site Grist covered a toxic spill at a factory near Philadelphia, noting that the accident was one of fifty such incidents in the first three months of 2023, according to Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters figures. However, despite the media frenzy surrounding the East Palestine derailment, as of May 2023, there has been zero corporate news coverage of the alarming number of accidental toxic chemical releases tracked by the CPCD.

Carey Gillam, “Revealed: The US is Averaging One Chemical Accident Every Two Days,” The Guardian, February 25, 2023.

Student Researcher: Julia Broberg (Frostburg State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Duncan (Frostburg State University)