East Palestine Disaster Shows How Philanthropy Can Halt Chemical Accidents in Their Tracks

By Ansje Miller – MAY 16, 2023

Derailed Norfolk Southern train cars in East Palestine, Ohio, sent up a signal to the nation about the danger of rail lines and pipelines.

Barely a day goes by without the news of another toxic-chemical disaster poisoning the water we drink or the soil where our children play.

Disasters such as the massive 38-car train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in February leaked 1.6 million pounds of hazardous materials, forcing the evacuation of 2,000 people. If the derailment had happened just 20 miles down the track, it would have endangered hundreds of thousands. Last week, the disaster led a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee to send train-safety legislation to the Senate floor.

This is personal for me. I live in Hillsborough, N.C., where my house is just a stone’s throw away from a rail line carrying some of the same toxic chemicals that were spilled in Ohio. I worry every time I hear a train go by that my community may be next.

East Palestine and Hillsborough — and Brunswick, GeorgiaWest Newbury, Mass.; and Deatsville, Ala., if you count some of the chemical spills in just the last few weeks — sit in a toxic, global web of oil, gas, and petrochemical production that touches everyone in this country. Disasters can and do happen anywhere on this web. On average, toxic-chemical releases, fires, and explosions occur every two days in the United States — most in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color where the majority of fossil-fuel infrastructure is concentrated. Few get the kind of attention the East Palestine disaster received.

Yet the response of advocates and grant makers to the East Palestine derailment shows what’s possible if philanthropy becomes more engaged in this issue. That means providing the resources communities need to respond quickly when disasters happen — and to prevent such catastrophes from occurring in the first place. It means investing in infrastructure that prioritizes the power of community voices and citizen science over rail lines and pipelines.

Nationwide, members of the Health and Environmental Funders Network, which I lead, are expanding the pool of grassroots organizations defending against the rapid spread of fossil-fuel development and petrochemical disasters. But much more support is needed to protect communities from chemical disasters.

That starts with better data and communications following a disaster. To save lives in the wake of a chemical disaster, residents and emergency responders need to know what substances they have been exposed to and how to protect themselves.

In East Palestine, residents were told it was safe to go back home just five days after the derailment and two days after hazmat teams burned off five train cars’ worth of spilled vinyl chloride — a known carcinogen. Chemical fires were still burning when the evacuation order was lifted, but the Environmental Protection Agency declared no air-quality concerns of note. East Palestine’s drinking water was also deemed safe after only a week’s worth of EPA testing conducted privately on behalf of Norfolk Southern, which operated the derailed train.

This type of rushed and industry-funded disaster response doesn’t exactly inspire trust in the institutions charged with protecting public health.

So when it became clear official testing might not be capturing the full extent of the contamination, the nonprofit Environmental Health Project and other local groups sprang into action. This included conducting independent soil, water, and air-quality testing and providing real-time public-health information to help residents manage their exposure.

Several nonprofits collaborated to ensure public-health information was shared far and wide and that journalists had the necessary background to accurately report on the disaster.

In addition to providing emergency relief, the Heinz Endowments and Bloomberg Philanthropies worked in collaboration with the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies to help several nonprofits, including the Environmental Health Project, Ohio River Valley Institute, and the Breathe Project issue public statements with detailed information about the derailment. This included a timeline of events, substances released, and government and industry response to the crisis.

More Safeguards

The East Palestine disaster also spotlighted the need for greater transparency and railroad safeguards. Some 160 miles of rail lines crisscross the United States, carrying cargo through countless cities and towns. Unfortunately, rail companies aren’t always required to disclose when trains are running or if they are carrying hazardous materials, and they are largely left to regulate themselves when it comes to following safety protocols.

Even though the derailed train in East Palestine had 11 cars filled with toxic substances, it wasn’t officially classified as carrying hazardous materials. Such a designation would have forced Norfolk Southern to post and display notification of its cargo.

Rail-safety advocates and grant makers in several states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, are working to change this situation. Five years ago, Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh, with support from Heinz, launched a campaign to block Norfolk Southern’s plans to raise vehicle and pedestrian bridges in Pittsburgh to accommodate double-stack trains. In so doing, the organization unearthed the many regulatory loopholes rail companies benefit from that undermine public and rail-worker safety.

Since then, the nonprofit has made advocating for stricter rail regulations at the state and federal levels central to its missions. It is currently playing an instrumental role in urging lawmakers to pass a 2023 Railway Safety Act that takes critical first steps toward closing these loopholes.

Halting Expansion

Of course, none of these disasters would happen if the fossil-fuel and petrochemical industries didn’t have a green light to keep growing. These companies make hundreds of billions of dollars annually manufacturing products with short shelf lives and long-lasting environmental and health consequences, such as single-use plastics, chemical fertilizers, and methane gas. To truly stop disasters in their tracks, grassroots advocates and donors need to halt the industry’s expansion.

Last September, for example, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched the Beyond Petrochemicals campaign to support efforts led by affected communities to block the expansion of more than 120 proposed petrochemical projects concentrated in Louisiana, Texas, and the Ohio River Valley.

In response to the East Palestine disaster, Bloomberg supported the Hip Hop Caucus, Moms Clean Air Force, and Beyond Plastics to disseminate petitions, testify before Congress and produce explanatory materials about what happened and how tragedies like these are tied directly to the expansion of the petrochemical industry.

Donor collaboratives, such as the Fossil Fuel Resistance Fund, are also working to build local capacity to fight fossil-fuel development. The fund, which is a project of the New World Foundation, the Schmidt Family Foundation’s 11th Hour Project, and Cloud Mountain Foundation, is designed to quickly and efficiently get funding to grassroots organizations working to stop the expansion of the fossil-fuel industry and respond to immediate community needs.

In East Palestine, the fund is helping purchase air purifiers for residents living near the derailment zone. Another such collaborative, the Direct Support Fund, which is administered by the Mountain Watershed Association, provided more than $30,000 to groups in East Palestine within 30 days of the derailment.

Efforts like these demonstrate what can happen if more donors support innovative campaigns to break the nation’s toxic relationship with petrochemicals and fuels. This week, members of the Health and Environmental Funders Network are coming together in New Orleans — at the heart of a Gulf Coast web of fossil-fuel extraction — to discuss how their giving can more effectively support affected communities. During that three-day event, there’s a good chance a train carrying toxic chemicals will derail somewhere in the United States.

Grant makers sitting on the sidelines shouldn’t wait for another East Palestine to grab headlines. They should commit to joining us now.

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