East Palestine is a village in northeastern Columbiana County, Ohio, United States. The population was 4,761 at the 2020 census. Located on the state’s border with Pennsylvania, East Palestine is about 20 miles (31 km) south of Youngstown and 40 miles (64 km) northwest of Pittsburgh.
On February 3, 2023, an explosion and fire occurred following the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous chemicals on the eastern end of town. A “state of emergency” was declared by the city council on February 4. An evacuation area was extended by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine on February 6 to allow for “a controlled release of vinyl chloride” and burning it in a nearby trench. Some residents subsequently started a class-action law suit against Norfolk Southern.
Vinyl chloride is an organochloride with the formula H2C=CHCl. It is also called vinyl chloride monomer (VCM ) or chloroethene . This colorless compound is an important industrial chemical chiefly used to produce the polymerpolyvinyl chloride (PVC). About 13 million tonnes are produced annually. VCM is among the top twenty largest petrochemicals (petroleum-derived chemicals) in world production. The United States currently remains the largest VCM manufacturing region because of its low-production-cost position in chlorine and ethylene raw materials. China is also a large manufacturer and one of the largest consumers of VCM. Vinyl chloride is a gas with a sweet odor. It is highly toxic, flammable, and carcinogenic. It can be formed in the environment when soil organisms break down chlorinated solvents. Vinyl chloride that is released by industries or formed by the breakdown of other chlorinated chemicals can enter the air and drinking water supplies.
Would we need pipelines for every non-compatible type of chemical? Pending the outcome of the investigation into cause(s) of failure, we may need stronger inspections/safer rail cars to permit transport of hazardous chemicals. If there are laws limiting the responsibility of the railroads to make people/governments whole (monetarily at least) after accidents, they need to be reformed as well.
Vinyl chloride is stored as a liquid. The presently accepted upper limit of safety as a health hazard is 500 ppm. Often, the storage containers for the product vinyl chloride are high capacity spheres. The spheres have an inside sphere and an outside sphere. Several inches of empty space separate the inside sphere from the outside sphere. This void area between the spheres is purged with an inert gas such as nitrogen. As the nitrogen purge gas exits the void space it passes through an analyzer that is designed to detect if any vinyl chloride is leaking from the internal sphere. If vinyl chloride starts to leak from the internal sphere or if a fire is detected on the outside of the sphere then the contents of the sphere are automatically dumped into an emergency underground storage container. Containers used for handling vinyl chloride at atmospheric temperature are always under pressure. Inhibited vinyl chloride may be stored at normal atmospheric conditions in suitable pressure vessel. Uninhibited vinyl chloride may be stored either under refrigeration or at normal atmospheric temperature in the absence of air or sunlight but only for a duration of a few days. If for longer periods, regular checks should be made for the presence of polymers.
Transporting VCM presents the same risks as transporting other flammable gases such as propane, butane (LPG) or natural gas (for which the same safety regulations apply). The equipment used for VCM transport is specially designed to be impact and corrosion resistant.
Everything fails, but the failure frequency of a pipeline is much less than a train.
People protest pipelines which just results in fewer pipelines and more trains and results in more environmental harm than we would have otherwise had. We’re going to have natural gas for a long time as we transition from coal/oil, worth being sensible about transportation risks.
There was chatter on Reddit (where people never lie or are misinformed!!!) that burning the VC produces phosgene, which is really nasty stuff. My five minutes of googling says that burning VC ‘may’ produce ‘some’ phosgene (for appropriate values of ‘may’ and ‘some’ that I’m not informed enough to estimate).
How much money is sloshing around the old EPA Superfund budget these days?
I worry that we may react very slowly on this, as we’ve done in the past. I grew up in a town that was a Superfund site due to lead, but they didn’t do any remediation until I think the late 1980s or early 1990s. I also grew up about ten miles from Picher, Oklahoma (link below), which had lead, cadmium, and whatever other heavy metals. A huge chunk of the town had lead poisoning of varying levels, and the EPA finally shuttered the town. Anywho.