The Ohio Train Derailment: Tracing the Origins of Disaster

Words by Yessenia Funes

The Frontline zooms into the St. Louis region where the Ohio train that derailed last month started its journey.

Across the Mississippi River from St. Louis’s iconic Gateway Arch, you may see billboards that read “Bullets Leave Holes” beneath the smiling faces of young Black men. Many people visit this area for one of two reasons: a job at one of the various industrial plants or a night out at one of the various strip clubs. 


If you take a closer look, however, the southern Illinois region (known as Metro East) is also home to over 80,000 people who live in one of these small towns along the water. Most of them are Black; a small minority are Latine and white. Home is where they send their kids to school and go to church. Home is also where a dirty legacy runs deep: of racism and violence, of exploitation and pollution.


Within a 10-mile radius of St. Louis, 92 toxic facilities exist, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory. On the east side alone, these polluters include a steel plant, an incinerator, several chemical plants, and freight train terminals. “People’s houses will be very close to these big industrial facilities,” said Grace Iverson, a volunteer with the local grassroots environmental group River City Climate Collective.


It’s no surprise, then, that this region is also where the train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, last month started its journey before overheating, slipping off the tracks, and releasing hazardous chemicals. 


Despite repeated emails to local and federal government offices (including the EPA and National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB), as well as to the responsible railroad company Norfolk Southern, Atmos hasn’t been able to confirm whether the chemicals on the train—specifically the vinyl chloride, made from petroleum and used in plastics—were produced in the industrial region of St. Louis. 

“Environmental racism has plagued predominantly Black communities for decades.”

Jeffrey Dixon
Empire 13

Here is what Atmos has confirmed: the train’s route began in Madison, Illinois, a small city along the Mississippi home to a predominantly Black community. At least one local plant that manufactures vinyl chloride was a client of Norfolk Southern as recently as 2021: Occidental Chemical Corporation, the third-largest supplier of vinyl chloride in the U.S. At the date of publishing, Occidental had not responded to multiple requests for comment from Atmos


Shintech Inc., the world’s largest producer of the chemical, was also listed as a client of Norfolk Southern as recently as 2021. As was Westlake Chemical Corporation, another company that produces vinyl chloride. Both Westlake and Shintech confirmed to Atmos via email that none of their products were involved in or carried on the train. 


It remains unclear who produced the chemicals that spilled and where. Regardless, the disaster in Ohio is a sobering reminder that public health and environmental safety are fragile promises that can quite literally explode without proper oversight and regulation. 


But fiery, failing trains aren’t the only problem. Dangerous air pollution exists all across the U.S. Every day, a disgusting amount of toxic chemicals spew into the air that Black and Brown communities breathe. Every day, these toxins threaten the people who live, work, and play mere miles from where they are produced and handled. 


Spills and explosions happen here, too. Where’s the public outcry for them?


Jeffrey Dixon, who goes by J.D., is an activist who has lived in the Metro East region since 1998. He had no idea that the train that derailed in Ohio started its route in his community—but he wasn’t surprised, either.


“Environmental racism has plagued predominantly Black communities for decades,” said Dixon, director of Empire 13, a local grassroots group focused on racial, economic, and environmental justice. “As history has shown, those communities face deprivation and disparity.”


His community to the east of St. Louis regularly deals with its own explosions and fires. Last year, a recycling warehouse erupted in flames. A month before that, so did a chemical plant. A year prior, another chemical plant billowed black plumes into the sky, a sight not different from what played out in East Palestine, Ohio, last month. 


“You would see the smoke in the community,” Dixon said. “You’d think it’s cloudy, but it’s actually the chemicals coming out of those plants.”


What made the disaster in Ohio stand out among what is unfortunately common across the U.S. was its magnitude. At least 11 train cars carrying hazardous chemicals derailed during the incident on Feb. 3; five of them were carrying a total of 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, according to a preliminary report by the NTSB released last week. To prevent the industrial gas from exploding, authorities conducted a controlled burn of the substance. New estimates suggest the incident killed over 43,000 animals. 


As for humans, well, exposure to the chemical can lead to cancer. Despite that, the market for the chemical, which derives from petroleum and is used in plastic products like pipes and wires, is set to reach revenues of $105.8 billion by 2030. Fossil fuel companies are trying to capitalize on this growth given that oil and gas won’t be a part of the energy mix forever.


In the wider St. Louis region, the community faces not only the power and wrath of coal companies that transport the fossil fuel up and down the Mississippi and leave behind their waste. Community members also face pollution from chemical companies spewing toxins into the air.


“It feels to these communities that we’re disposable, that there’s no need to clean up,” said Beth Gutzler, the lead environmental justice organizer with Metropolitan Congregations United, a faith-based organization in the community. “If you have enough money, you can just move to another area that doesn’t have these problems. There’s not a sense of urgency to give equitable environments to everybody throughout the St. Louis region.”


As a result, these small towns face an increased risk of cancer from breathing in their air, according to the EPA’s Environmental Justice and Screening Tool. The data also shows that the air poses respiratory hazards to residents, who are largely people of color and low income. Health disparities include low life expectancy and asthma.

Photograph by Brian Kaiser / The New York Times / Redux

A 2019 report on environmental racism in St. Louis from the Environmental Clinic at Washington University School of Law found that the city’s Black residents faced higher burdens than their white neighbors when it comes to access to healthy food, lead and mold exposure, energy bills, demolition dust, and illegal trash dumping. Their communities are literally treated like dumping grounds, and that didn’t happen by accident. 


Like much of Black America, the region is rich with history. Most of the towns east of St. Louis were incorporated as company towns in the 20th century: industry came in, set up shop, and the people came after. Monsanto and several oil companies (including Shell) once reigned on this side of the Mississippi. With these industries came the infrastructure that has fostered even more industry today. There also came segregation, which has kept Black families subjected to this slow violence.


Many of the Black folks who came to the region migrated from the South. This journey north in 1916 and 1917 is known as the Great Migration. The tensions between the white residents and their new Black neighbors who had found work in the industrial section boiled over until race riots erupted—the worst that the U.S. had yet seen. Black folks were indiscriminately targeted; hundreds were killed. In the words of Black political activist Marcus Garvey, “This is a massacre that will go down in history as one of the bloodiest outrages against mankind for which any class of people could be held guilty.”


This is the backdrop by which the East St. Louis region operates today.


“Over the years, the toxic industries remained,” said Bret Gustafson, an anthropology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s a sacrifice zone … In anthropology, we talk about devaluation and degradation of places and people. For the sake of industry, I think this is one of those regions where that has happened.”


There’s no understanding St. Louis today without this historic lens. It’s why the region continues to face industrial pollution. It’s why Black folks bear the brunt of it. It’s why organizers like Dixon dedicate themselves to “beautifying the community,” as he put it, by cleaning up and fighting back. Communities like his carry the burden of our society’s obsession with plastic. We don’t know if the train’s shipment of vinyl chloride originated here—but it originated somewhere, likely next door to communities much like those in the St. Louis region. 


Why must it take a major environmental disaster for the world to notice? Why do we need flames and black clouds? Is the death and trauma of communities riddled with cancer and asthma not enough? Does the continued heating up of the planet from fossil fuel emissions not suffice? 


Our leaders should prioritize the real issue: the speeding train of fossil fuel extraction and addiction that is about to crash and burn not a town but a planet. While leaders do nothing, the fiery train passes through one community and the next, getting people sick. This should be enough, but it’s not. The suffering of Black and Brown folks rarely is.

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