A freight train carrying hazardous chemicals containing more than 100,000 gallons derailed and caught fire in East Palestine, Ohio this year. This sparked a fear of rail safety, and toxic spillovers for the communities below.
It is less known where the chemicals come from and what they are intended for.
According to shipment records released by the Environmental Protection Agency, a large portion of the vinyl chloride cargo on the train -- which was incinerated to prevent a larger explosion -- originated from a chemical plant in La Porte near Houston, Texas. OxyVinyls is the chemical division of Occidental Petroleum. The chemicals were traveling 1,600 miles to an Oxy facility in Pedricktown (N.J.) that produces plastic for PVC flooring.
Details of the cargo was included in a administrative order that the E.P.A. filed last month. This was based upon shipment data provided to the E.P.A. by Oxy, and other shippers. Records show that Oxy had 700,000 pounds or vinyl chloride in the train when it derailed. A representative of the E.P.A. An E.P.A.
The Norfolk Southern train's explosive load can be traced back to its source, shedding light on the health and environmental risks associated with the country's rapid growth in plastics manufacturing and usage. Oxy shipped chemicals that were used to make PVC. PVC is a rigid plastic widely used for water pipes, furniture and floor tiles.
The American plastic industry is experiencing a boom, thanks to cheap and abundant shale-gas. It is becoming an increasingly important part of Occidental's business, a Houston-based major oil company, as countries begin to move away from burning fossil fuels which are the primary cause of climate change.
Texas and Louisiana have become chemical hubs around the world as oil and gas firms expand their plastics manufacturing to counteract possible declines in demand for fuel oil.
Communities across the country are grappling with health and safety issues arising from the explosion in chemical manufacturing and transport.
Emergency personnel responded in force to a fire and explosion that occurred at Oxy's La Porte facility last year. In recent years, toxic chemicals from firefighting water used to fight the Ohio train fire were trucked back into a Deer Park, Texas processing facility, located near La Porte. In 2012, a vinyl chloride train, bound for the same New Jersey plastics plant that the Ohio train was destined for, derailed, and plunged in a creek. This chemical released 23,000 gallons and forced the evacuation of homes in the area.
OxyVinyls announced in its regulatory filings that it would spend $1.1 billion on expanding and upgrading its La Porte facility. Shintech, which is the largest PVC producer in the world and whose shipments were also destroyed in the Ohio catastrophe, according to records of freight, has spent more than $2 billion on expanding its operations in Texas, Louisiana and Texas.
Officials at Oxy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
According to the American Chemistry Council, since 2010, chemicals companies have invested over $100 billion into new or expanded facilities. Another $99 billion is in the pipeline. A large portion of this investment was in plastics.
With the proliferation of plastic production, more hazardous substances have been in transit. Data from the Association for American Railroads shows that rail shipments of chemicals for plastic production have increased by approximately a third in the last decade.
Chemicals are a growing business for the railways. This is because coal transportation, one of the traditional mainstays of the industry, has been drastically reduced due to the decline in coal mining and coal burning. In the last decade, rail transportation of coal has dropped by nearly half. Rail cargo for agricultural products, such as grain and soya beans, has been flat.
Derailments are down since the 1970s but the cost of derailments of hazardous material trains has increased. According to Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the majority of accidents, injuries, and deaths that involve hazardous materials in transit occur on the road. Since 2012, incidents have increased by more than 50%.
Residents at the origins of these shipments have been concerned about cancer-causing chemicals for a long time.
Sema Hernandez is a community activist who lives about half a mile from Oxy’s La Porte facility with her four kids. She said that headline-grabbing accidents such as the Ohio derailment might bring attention to chemical hazards temporarily, but they are a constant threat for communities with chemical plants nearby.
She said, 'It may be a regular day and then suddenly a siren goes off telling you that this is no drill. You should shelter in place.' "That could happen at any moment."
The production of plastics does not usually involve the burning of the oil that is used to make them. However, there are other possible hazards. Numerous studies conducted since the 1970s have shown that workers who were exposed to vinyl chloride (which is made of fossil fuels) and used primarily to manufacture PVC developed malignant liver tumors. Vinyl chloride is also linked to lung and brain cancers, leukemia and lymphoma.
Toxic-Free Future (a nonprofit organization that promotes safer products and chemicals) published an analysis this month that found PVC plastics factories reported releasing over 400,000 pounds vinyl chloride in the air by 2021. The study also revealed that people of colour were overrepresented within communities close to such plants. They accounted for more than 60% of the 400,000 residents who lived within three miles from a PVC manufacturing or waste disposal facility. This compares with 40% of the population.
In 2021, officials from the United Nations said that cancer-related pollution risks in areas with a majority of African Americans near a cluster petrochemical plant along the Mississippi River were far greater than those in areas with primarily white populations. Residents of St. James Parish in Louisiana, the center of the region, sued their local council last month for racist land-use practices that have placed petrochemicals plants in Black neighborhoods.
A fire that occurred at a plastics recycler in Indiana, unrelated to the recycling process, highlighted the dangers at the end. Recycling companies across the country have struggled to deal with an ever-growing supply of plastic waste, which is often piled up at recycling facilities and deemed a fire risk by experts.
New York, Boston and Seattle, as well as other cities, such San Francisco and New York in the United States, have implemented policies to phase out PVC and similar products that are linked to pollution. They also limit public purchases and mandate alternatives. Some countries have banned or restricted the use of PVC, such as Canada, Spain, and South Korea. California legislators are also pursuing a similar ban.