Prove your humanity

This story comes from our partner, 90.5 WESA.

Gov. Josh Shapiro issued a dire warning on Monday afternoon to Pennsylvania residents near the border of Ohio where a train derailment was threatening lives in East Palestine. Rail operator Norfolk Southern was planning to release toxic fumes from five of the derailed cars into the atmosphere at 3:30 p.m., and some residents still had not evacuated.

Ohio was evacuating around 2,000 residents, while there were only a couple dozen residents on the Pennsylvania side of the border.“If you are in this red zone that is on the map and you refuse to evacuate, you are risking death,” Shapiro said. “If you are within the orange area on this map, you risk permanent lung damage within a matter of hours or days.”The “slow release” of vinyl chloride has not appeared to cause imminent harm to any nearby residents, according to early reports. But some Pittsburgh-area environmental advocates say that thousands of lives could be at risk if a similar accident were to happen within city limits.

Glenn Olcerst, the leader of the advocacy group Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh, said the city’s ailing infrastructure and densely populated landscape put it at risk of a potentially far more deadly rail accident.

The city is particularly vulnerable because so much explosive natural gas from regional fracking wells passes through it by rail, he said. The 1-mile evacuation in East Palestine impacted around 2,000 residents but a similar evacuation in East Liberty would require the evacuation of more than 30,000 residents, he said.

“This is a blueprint of what’s going to come to a neighborhood near you in Pittsburgh,” he said.

Norfolk Southern, which owns much of the rail infrastructure in the Pittsburgh region, including the tracks where the accident occurred, declined an interview request and didn’t respond to an emailed set of questions. “The [National Transportation Safety Board] limits our ability to speak on the derailment while their investigation is underway,” said spokesperson Conor Spielmaker in an email.

Recent derailments in area

There have been eight train derailments in the Pittsburgh region since Olcerst’s group became active in the past five years, he said. And each derailment, he said, shows different ways that the city is at risk of future and potentially more deadly crashes.

For example, he said, a train derailment last year in Harmar, which took place after a train hit a dump truck carrying stone, was due to a lack of protective barriers at a railroad crossing. Olcerst said it was lucky that neither the truck nor the train was carrying something more explosive.

“When you’re carrying toxic material on a train, you should protect the crossings,” he said. “That wasn’t the truck driver’s fault. That was a failure to put any gates or warning lights or anything at all.”

Critics say industry pushing profits over safety

Initial indications from the National Transportation Safety Board suggest the accident in East Palestine was due to a mechanical failure in one of the rail cars. Olcerst said that this wouldn’t be surprising because the company is responsible for inspecting its own rail cars, and the industry’s reliance on self-monitoring hasn’t always worked. A 2018 derailment on the South Side, for example, was caused by a crack in a track, which he said Norfolk Southern and its contractors failed to initially identify or act upon after learning about it.

One reason for a lack of diligence, Olcerst said, is a change in the industry called “precision-scheduled railroading” where rail companies are trying to move more freight using fewer workers. This means there are fewer workers for inspections, Olcerst said. Also, trains are twice as long as they used to be, which makes it more difficult for trains to stop and start safely, he said.

“What’s happened is they’ve adopted a business model which almost caused the nationwide rail strike,” Olcest said. “And that appears to have incentivized profit over prudence and safety.”

Ailing infrastructure, lack of information

Pittsburgh’s ailing infrastructure puts the city at additional risk, Olcerst said. The city of Pittsburgh is already taking steps to try to fix some of its bridges, including closing or limiting traffic on two bridges in the past week out of concern they were unsafe.

But Olcerst said that rail bridges should be of even greater concern because they have to support far more weight, and the explosive material they carry, such as natural gas, could have consequences that extend far beyond the crash site. And yet, he said, there are no public records of the safety inspections of rail bridges, as there are with city bridges.

David Masur, the executive director of the statewide nonprofit PennEnvironment, said rail companies such as Norfolk Southern should provide more information about what is carried by trains passing through communities, be required to buy disaster insurance and make additional improvements to their infrastructure.

“We’re calling on state and federal officials to protect public health in our communities by subjecting freight companies such as Norfolk Southern to greater levels of inspections and oversight,” he said in a statement. “Ideally, freight companies should have to re-route trains carrying hazardous material away from populated areas.”

There are steps that public officials could take to improve safety, Olcerst said, but he doesn’t believe local officials are taking the threat seriously. He said he has reached out to local officials recently about safety problems and didn’t receive a response.

Shapiro said the Department of Environmental Protection has not found any impact on the air quality or water quality in southwestern Pennsylvania so far. The Allegheny County Health Department said that as of 7:15 p.m. Monday, it hadn’t detected any changes to the quality of air it monitors.