On Friday 3 February, a Norfolk Southern Railway freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. As a result of the derailment, 38 rail cars were derailed and a fire broke out, damaging an additional 12 cars. The train had a total of 20 vehicles containing hazardous materials, 11 of which derailed, with five wagons containing highly flammable and carcinogenic vinyl chloride.
People living within a 3-kilometer radius of the accident were evacuated from their homes, but the smell of the chemicals was reportedly felt up to 25 kilometers away. Controlled burning of the hazardous materials began a few days after the accident. This was done to prevent a possible explosion, which would have had much worse consequences. However, this method of chemical removal created a cloud of phosgene and hydrogen chloride over the region, raising concerns about long-term effects on the local population.
Representatives from Norfolk Southern were due to attend the meeting to explain what had happened and how they could repair the damage, but ultimately did not attend, and the company said in a statement: "Unfortunately, after consulting with community leaders, we are increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and community members associated with this event due to the increasing likelihood of outside entities becoming involved.
As a result, residents still live in fear that the vinyl chloride spill could have long-term health effects, but officials assure them that their health is not at risk. Residents of the area became concerned when several cases of sudden animal deaths occurred in the days following the spill and the controlled burning of the chemicals. Although Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said the contamination did not pose a serious threat to people who depend on the river for drinking water, he and several Ohio health and environmental officials warned that residents who use private wells near the derailment should only use bottled water. The director of the Ohio Department of Health warned that the spilled compounds can cause headaches and irritation of the eyes and nose, but that measurements of samples taken from municipal wells by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not indicate that residents should be at risk.
The investigation into the cause of the accident is ongoing. NTSB investigators have identified and examined the rail car that caused the derailment. Surveillance video from a residence showed that it appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stages of failure due to overheating, which occurred moments before the derailment. Video footage shown by the US news program Rush Hour shows one of the convoy's wheelsets on fire as far as 32 kilometers from the accident site.
The safety of such large freight trains has also been debated in the US Senate. Senators Marco Rubio and J.D. Vance, along with Buttigieg, warned that "it is not unreasonable to ask whether a crew of two railroaders plus an intern can effectively monitor 150 rail cars".