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Potential for hazmat transport accidents higher in low income areas in Midwest

March 4, about 30 cars from a 212 car-Norfolk Southern train derailed in Springfield Township. No injuries, no toxic chemical spills.
John Dobson
March 4, about 30 cars from a 212 car-Norfolk Southern train derailed in Springfield Township. No injuries, no toxic chemical spills.

The train derailment disaster in East Palestine and the near-train derailment disaster in Springfield earlier this year has put a new focus on how hazardous materials are transported across our region.

WYSO Environmental Reporter Chris Welter spoke with Sarah Bowman and Katherine Oung from the USA Today Network about their investigation into Hazmat transportation accidents in the midwest.

Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity)

Sarah Bowman: Right now these chemicals that are classified as hazardous materials are so ingrained in our everyday life in society, whether they are in a product itself or involved in the process of producing that product. These chemicals are in everything from our drinking water, in our medicines, pharmaceuticals, obviously in all sorts of plastic things that we use, the agricultural products to our food, our fuel that we use to power cars — it's in everything.

These are so ingrained in how we live our lives every day and that's why there has to be so many of them moving around us all the time.

RELATED: NTSB reviewing Norfolk Southern train derailment in Clark County

Chris Welter: Katherine, as a data journalist who worked on this project, what did you all find kind of in broad terms about hazmat transportation accident numbers in the Midwest?

Katherine Oung: I think some of the big things that we found was that this Midwestern area that we were looking at was a significant area for hazardous transportation, but also hazardous transportation incidents. We found that the incidents have been growing over time, both as the circulation increases, but also as different regulatory processes move back and forth. We also found that most incidents that occurred aren't necessarily deemed serious.

Chris: Then what did you find when it comes to where these accidents are occurring?

Katherine: We saw that places that are lower income, that's where we see railroads, industrial facilities, clustering, and even when it comes to highways.

There is a risk factor for certain communities. But then also on the other hand, after an accident happens, I think it's important to look at that as well because when something happens and a town is labeled, maybe labeled in a certain way, that can lead to people wanting to leave the community or property values declining. That can be a worry for the residents. I think that shows that it's not only the human health impacts, it's not only the environmental impacts, but also it can be something that affects all aspects of someone's life.

Chris: Since the incident in East Palestine, there's been a lot of talk from politicians and the general public about hazmat transportation regulations.

Sarah: Obviously, a big focus has been on trains, but, you know, that doesn't preclude looking at highway transportation, for example, as well.

But, in general, some people are really trying to enhance inspection requirements and requirements of what the containers themselves have to be on the railcars or the trucks — the standards that they have to meet in terms of being able to to withstand an incident like tipping or rolling or those sorts of things.

Those sorts of additional regulations, there would be capital investments involved to potentially upgrade equipment or change out these containers and there is obviously some time that goes into that.

In the past, there's kind of been some industry pushback on doing that because it could cut into the bottom line and some of the changes that have been made, according to experts, like with rail precision scheduled railroading or PSR — that's what gives us the longer trains — are all meant to maximize profit. More regulations would potentially kind of cut into some of that and so that's that that we've seen that tension play out.

Chris Welter is the Managing Editor at The Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Chris got his start in radio in 2017 when he completed a six-month training at the Center for Community Voices. Most recently, he worked as a substitute host and the Environment Reporter at WYSO.