The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and the response to this disaster displayed many of the challenges and issues that CNA has observed while facilitating rail exercises and analyzing previous train accident responses. These include lack of coordination between the public and private sector, difficulties with preparing for the dual challenges of a train derailment and hazardous material spill, lack of coordination between local governments and train companies, and ensuring that evacuations are handled equitably. Learning new lessons from this derailment will require a high-level analysis of gaps in coordination, planning, and implementation. Developing solutions to those gaps will protect communities alongside tracks nationwide from becoming the next East Palestine.

On February 3, 2023, East Palestine, Ohio, became the epicenter of national attention when a 151-car freight train derailed in this small community. In total, 38 railcars derailed and ignited in flames, damaging 12 cars. Further aggravating the incident for emergency responders, 11 of the derailed cars carried hazardous carcinogenic material, including vinyl chloride and ethylhexyl acrylate. These hazardous materials leaked near open flames, escalating the incident into a multi-day emergency evacuation for 2,000 residents (or 40% of the total population) out of fear of toxic fumes and shrapnel. Emergency responders decided to vent and burn the toxic vinyl chloride in a controlled setting to mitigate the danger. Unfortunately, the controlled burn resulted in a toxic chemical plume forming over the region and traveling downstream, approximately 265 miles, into West Virginia.

Train Derailment Background

Statistically, travel via railroad is significantly safer than automobile or watercraft, however, train derailments are not rare within the United States. Per the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there have been 14,151 passenger and industry freight train derailment accidents between 2011 to 2021. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) noted that between the years of  2015 to 2019, there were 4.8 derailments for every 100 miles of train track. The US DOT further cited the failure of old and broken rails and welds being the most common cause of train derailments in that span of time.

While hazardous spills from train derailments are generally uncommon as compared to other modes of transport, impacts from these disasters are much more significant. In 2022, 18 train derailments involving the release of hazardous chemicals resulted in $41.6 million worth of damages, as compared to $2.1 million worth of damages from 300 chemical leaks in other modes of transportation. In addition to the loss of product and property damage from a train derailment chemical spill, contamination tends to be more widespread throughout the community. Within the past decade, at least 24 recorded evacuation orders were implemented by local governments – or once every seven train accidents. Even when allowed to return to their homes, residents of the affected area suffer lasting effects ranging from long-term health issues to livestock and water contamination. Contamination-related fatalities, though rare, have also been reported in the aftermath of train derailment chemical spills. Between 1994 to 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration reported that 14 people died due to hazardous material exposure. The potential for regional contamination and death is especially concerning as many of our nation’s tracks run through urban populations, and while recent train derailment chemical spills in Houston, Texas, and Detroit, Michigan proved minor, the threat of having a large-scale spill with short- and long-term impacts is daunting.

Ongoing Challenges

CNA has served as the creators and facilitators for local, state, and federal level rail exercises, as well as supporting real-world train accident responses. As a result of these experiences, CNA can note common challenges and lessons learned, many of which are relevant to the events in East Palestine.

Communication gaps between public and private sector

The lasting impacts left in the aftermath of a train derailment chemical spill have sparked debates regarding transparency between government entities and private railroad companies, as called out most recently by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. In East Palestine, OH, the chemical cargo was not designated as a highly hazardous material, so Norfolk Southern was not required to notify state officials of railcar contents. In fact, no one organization, including the U.S. Department of Transportation, monitors the real-time movement of hazardous chemicals nationwide, and jurisdictions rely on freight companies to be transparent and communicate potential threats.

Planning gaps for local hazardous material response

Multiple jurisdictions discovered via exercise or real-world response that their plans insufficiently address the simultaneous occurrence of a train derailment and a hazardous material spill. Plans were often too broad in scope resulting in confusion and uncertainty in the number of resources, and the types of resources, needed to respond to a train derailment chemical spill. One after action noted that the lack of precision planning resulted in the deployment of various unnecessary resources into a hazardous site resulting in significant delays in response activities. Additionally, implementation of both broad and sufficiently narrow plans has served as gaps in past performances. In each after action CNA has reviewed, the response has fallen short in the implementation and understanding of procedures in one or more plans. The most consistently noted planning gap identified in each real-world event and exercise was the decision making of various senior leadership positions regarding actions that diverged from, or contradicted, jurisdictional Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP) due to a lack of understanding of the document’s role in emergency situations, or its procedures.

Lack of plan sharing and coordination

Another key planning gap identified was the lack of plan sharing amongst critical stakeholders. A critical finding in one exercise noted that while jurisdictions can request a railroad company’s Disaster Response Plan through a formal process prior to an incident, they cannot do so during an ongoing disaster. Therefore, jurisdictions with hazmat-carrying rail traffic should secure relevant rail company Disaster Response Plans prior to an event so local responders can foster greater coordination and understand what roles and responsibilities each response entity has. Joint training and exercise between private rail transport companies and local first responders would also serve to ensure everyone is familiar with and practiced in executing those plans.

Planning for evacuation and shelter-in-pace for vulnerable populations

In mass evacuations, like the one in East Palestine, special consideration and resources must be focused on populations such as the elderly, disabled, hospitalized, and those without a private mode of transportation. These groups will need transportation to a safe area and aid once relocated. Additionally, a key learning point one jurisdiction garnered from an after action was that not all access and functional needs persons are located in set areas such as hospitals, retirement homes, or other controlled environments; many are spread throughout the community and will all need transportation and unique accommodations. Furthermore, vulnerable populations that shelter in place often lack enough food, water, medication, and viable shelter, for long-term hazards. Responders in a chemical spill event should consider the ability to provide necessary life-sustaining functions for these populations and provide adequate shelter for homeless populations through potential power outages, supply chain disruptions, or various other continuity of operations disturbances. Finally, CNA noted that equitability for evacuations and shelter-in-place operations must include translations of government mandates for those with limited or no English.

Out of this tragedy, there is an opportunity to learn still more lessons to help prevent dangerous derailments and improve the response to them. As the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment chemical spill concludes its recovery efforts in the following weeks and months, response organizations should conduct a high-level overview of gaps in interagency coordination, plan creation and implementation, and vulnerable population action planning for further advancements in emergency response efforts in complex train derailment incidents.

John Kearse is a Research Specialist with CNA's Center for Critical Incident Analysis.