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Did a Norfolk Southern Train Take a ‘Spill’?

March 24, 2023
Words matter, especially when an industry's reputation is at stake.

Was it really a “spill”?

In CP’s recent coverage of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, I’ve referred to the events following the incident as a chemical spill. As part of our ongoing coverage, I reached out to William Carroll, an adjunct professor in Indiana University’s chemistry department, to discuss some of the challenges around material substitution. 

Some academics suggested that safer chemical formulations could prevent similar disasters in the future. In an email exchange, Carroll offered a sidenote. He said:

“Might I point out that for all the attention paid to vinyl chloride in this accident, none of those cars breached in the derailment?  There was only an issue when the decision was made to empty them and burn the material in the open air, a decision that others might have made differently.”

At the time, I was focused on the topic for my follow-up article and, frankly, didn’t give the professor’s addendum much thought. That changed after I reviewed  Senate testimony from Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Homendy recapped NTSB’s preliminary report on the derailment, issued on Feb. 23. Here’s an excerpt from her testimony on the events of Feb. 5:

Responders scheduled a controlled venting of the five vinyl chloride tank cars to release and burn the vinyl chloride. They expanded the evacuation zone to a 1-mile by 2-mile area and dug ditches to contain released vinyl chloride liquid while it vaporized and burned. The controlled venting began about 4:40 p.m. on February 6 and continued for several hours. The NTSB had no role in the decision to vent and burn the five vinyl chloride tank cars; however, we will evaluate that decision and the process for carrying out the vent and burn in our investigation.

Is that a “spill”? As a transitive verb, the Merriam Webster definition of “spill” is “to cause or allow especially accidentally or unintentionally to fall, flow, or run out so as to be lost or wasted.”

The train derailment in East Palestine was almost certainly an accident (nobody has suggested foul play), and no hazardous materials actually leaked from the tank cars. Instead, authorities concerned about the rising temperature inside a tank decided to release and burn vinyl chloride from the five cars, carrying a total of 115,580 gallons of the material, to prevent an explosion. Was that the right decision? We’ll leave that to the investigators and health experts to determine. 

However, to say the accident was a “spill” may suggest the tank cars failed in some way to contain the chemicals in transport. Why does it matter? Because, as we know in the chemical industry, suppliers of hazardous materials face intense scrutiny from regulators and the public. The industry faces reputational consequences any time hazardous materials pose a threat to people, wildlife or natural resources.

And as Trish Kerin, director of IChemE Safety Centre, notes, chemical processing companies have “ownership of the risk from cradle to grave.” That’s why it’s important that we, as journalists, get it right. Semantics matter. That doesn’t mean the chemical industry can’t do more to lessen the impact of future accidents, as we noted in the article “Could New Chemistries, Retooled Production Strategies Prevent the Next East Palestine Spill?” (There we go again with that word).

Maybe this is a lot of crying over spilled milk. Even so, going forward I will not use the term when referencing the East Palestine disaster to avoid ambiguity.  

In the meantime, I would like to hear more about what you, the readers, think about this issue and more. Feel free to reach out at [email protected].

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Executive Editor

Jonathan Katz, executive editor, brings nearly two decades of experience as a B2B journalist to Chemical Processing magazine. He has expertise on a wide range of industrial topics. Jon previously served as the managing editor for IndustryWeek magazine and, most recently, as a freelance writer specializing in content marketing for the manufacturing sector.

His knowledge areas include industrial safety, environmental compliance/sustainability, lean manufacturing/continuous improvement, Industry 4.0/automation and many other topics of interest to the Chemical Processing audience.

When he’s not working, Jon enjoys fishing, hiking and music, including a small but growing vinyl collection.

Jon resides in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.

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