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These things and similar things happen. All. The. Time.
I didn’t initially want to write about this, but some readers have been sending me things asking me to do it so here I go. This is my opinion on the topic and belongs to me.
I was genuinely surprised at the reactions people have been having to the recent train derailment in Ohio. I suspect this has gained attention because of the burn that had an alarming smoke cloud coming out of it. For the residents of Eastern Ohio where this is happening. I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to deal with this stuff. No one should have to cope with something like this happening.
I was even more surprised at the reaction from the GOP who have often been considered an ally of the chemical industry and would often like to see agencies such as the EPA cease to exist despite the fact it was started by Nixon. From the Cato Institute on the Republican party reversal regarding environmental regulation:
Up through the 1970s, Republicans generally shared the belief that environmental problems required urgent government intervention, accepted the professional expertise of scientists and others calling for environmental action, and thought it acceptable for government to intervene in the economy to protect the environment and public health. Over the past few decades, however, many Republicans have come to see many environmental claims as “alarmist and exaggerated,” have “dismissed professional expertise,” and see environmental regulations as economic burdens that constrain individual liberty. More broadly, as the perceived urgency of environmental problems ebbed and regulatory costs became more apparent, it was natural that some would view additional regulation as a bad deal.
Trains and trucks carrying hazardous chemicals, paints, food, gasoline, crude oil, radioactive material, and other dangerous stuff lose containment. There is a bit of regulatory overlap here though where the Department of Transportation has influence during the transit, but the EPA also has some power in the production, import, and sale of these types of chemicals.
Here’s a paper on vinyl chloride train derailment and burning in Germany (via Rebecca Altman’s Twitter). This doesn’t just happen in the United States. We have spills and unplanned releases of chemicals all over the world. All. The. Time.
For some reason the public has decided that this moment is the one where they will be collectively angry despite there being a long history of these types of things happening. I’m not going to cover the current events of the Ohio train derailment aside from attempting to put this into a larger focus of systemic issues and why its difficult to change. If you want some newsletter coverage I think Doomberg did a pretty good job.
There Is No Free Lunch
We will continue to have spills like the one in Ohio for as long as we have a chemical industry making the stuff that we consume possible because this is the foundation of our economy.
If anything, train derailments were decreasing as of 2017 and there were fewer accidents. There has been a theory that the derailment could have been mitigated had a 2017 regulation been kept regarding train brakes. Updated equipment such as better brakes makes sense. I wish that regulation had not been repealed, but I’m not sure it would have stopped all future train derailments carrying hazardous materials.
Even if the regulation did exist, Norfolk Southern could have just had trains that were not compliant and derailed anyway and we would be in the same position. The blame would be unquestionable at least, but blame without action just leads to us repeating this scenario again in the future. Enforcement of regulations can be difficult if the regulator in question cannot employ people because they cannot offer competitive salaries, which in turn can make jobs more difficult due to not having enough employees. One of the worst jobs in the government right now is probably being an EPA regulator. The conservatives hate you because you are being too strict. The democrats hate you because you are “too cozy with industry.” The industry hates you because you are, “getting in the way of progress.” The environmental groups hate you because you “aren’t doing enough.” If you want better oversight of chemicals, oil and gas, and less releases of chemicals that can cause cancer or kill all the fish in a river then you want a strong EPA and DOT.
For some reason (maybe because Pete Buttigieg is Secretary of Transportation) it feels like we have an alignment of both political parties calling for more regulation and a desire for environmental protection. I think this lasts less than 6 months, but MAYBE there is a 5% chance we can get some bipartisan legislation passed regarding updated safety requirements for transport of hazardous materials, larger fines, and perhaps some funding to find better alternatives.
So, now that everyone in the world seems to know what vinyl chloride is and what its used for let’s talk about polyvinyl chloride (PVC).
Water Pipes and Vinyl Siding
You might not know it but if you use white PVC for the plumbing of water in your house, condo, RV, or camper van then you are a consumer of polymerized vinyl chloride. There are 6 major commodity plastics in the world and polyvinyl chloride or PVC is one of them. PVC is a little bit different from the others in that it contains a chlorine atom. It’s kind of like polyethylene, but instead of a long polymerized hydrocarbon it’s a long polymerized hydrocarbon with a chlorine atom attached to every other carbon atom.
Addition of the chlorine atom makes the overall finished polymer a rigid and strong material as opposed to polyethylene being softer with higher elongation. We primarily use PVC in window casings, exterior siding for houses, and pipes for carrying water or protecting other utilities. PVC is cost effective, stable, and versatile. It even has its own lobbying group. We can also plasticize PVC to make stretchy films and make it more flexible. This synthetic polymer is high performing, cheap, and widely available.
If you want to ban vinyl chloride from being made then I wish you good luck. Trying to displace it from use would literally take an act of congress to ban it because I don’t see any possible route of a new competitor taking its place. Like it or not, but PVC is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
If you want the most cost efficient way to protect the exterior of your home from rain, wind, ice, sunlight and just generally being outside then vinyl siding is one of the most cost efficient route to do this. About 1 in 4 homes in the US have vinyl siding.
The majority of vinyl chloride is produced and consumed at the same site or a neighboring site. For instance Westlake might produce vinyl chloride and then pipe it to their customer’s plant next door (or their own). But sometimes there is a need to ship vinyl chloride (<10% of all volume produced) for some specialty polymer that needs vinyl chloride as a co-monomer and we get the potential for another East Palestine happening.
It’s a shitty situation to be in for the residents of East Palestine. If it didn’t happen there it was going to happen somewhere else. I wished it never happened just as I wish we never had chemical plant fires, dust explosions, air pollution, plastic waste in our oceans, or people dying on the job. These are the externalized costs that we need to reconcile with our modern lives. Cancer Alley exists, but where is the outrage and bipartisan support for more environmental regulation.
Maybe as a chemist I got desensitized to the danger of chemicals. We handle dangerous stuff all the time. In graduate school I was able to order bottles and bottles of acutely toxic chemicals (you die if you get too much in you) such as ortho-cresol, phenol, and sodium azide. If I wanted a liter of tert-butyl lithium which will combust when exposed to water and has resulted in death previously then I can get it. Theoretically, I’ve got the training to handle this stuff, knowledge of personal protective equipment, and I’m using engineering controls of safety such as a fume hood or glovebox. You’d be surprised at what gets overlooked in favor of getting more results faster, which can be leveraged into papers and grant applications to get more money.
Maybe my view of the world is warped by my experience. I see how the outsole of my shoe wearing out means microplastic rubber out in the environment. Same with the worn out tires on my car. Getting a new pair of shoes every year might be worse than using single use plastics that I landfill (cannot recycle due to their small size). I could go on an endless cycle of how we pollute everyday and don’t even think about it, get outraged, or feel guilty, but that is no way to live a happy and productive life.
Lots Of Other Dangerous Stuff
Maybe, we can ban vinyl chloride. That will make us feel better right? Tragedy, action, catharsis in doing the right thing. I’m all for going down this route, but we would then have to also consider a bunch of other dangerous chemicals that we ship by rail car everyday across the country.
There is a lot more than just vinyl chloride being transported via rail car, tank truck, or river barge in the world. Here is a clip from Unstoppable where they talk about molten phenol and derailing a runaway train (movie based on the CSX 8888 incident):
When you load molten phenol into a rail car you pump it in hot or as a molten liquid, but as it sits in the car it slowly cools, crystallizes, and eventually becomes solid. This can take quite a bit of time and I’ve got no idea how long it takes molten phenol to become 100% solid in a rail car, but a small 6x6” of exposure of molten phenol on your skin is enough to be fatal.
I used to handle it everyday for a little over two years.
We ship molten phenol, propylene oxide, epichlorohydrin, formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol, gasoline, styrene, benzene and too many to list here by rail car everyday. Some of these chemicals are more hazardous than vinyl chloride and some are less dangerous.
The trains that carry these chemicals are operated by workers who recently had to threaten to strike in order to get paid sick days (surprise: they never got them), better pay, and benefits that you or I might take for granted.
I’m about 1300 words into writing this and I’m filled with more anger than before I started. My anger stems from my prediction that this will keep happening for years and years to come.
This Will Keep Happening Unless…
Sadly, this stuff is going to keep happening. Norfolk Southern will get a relatively small fine that has likely been budgeted for the year and the actual business of keeping the chemical industry going will continue. Our collective outrage will subside until we find something else to be angry about.
A movie got made about a runaway train in 2010 about an actual event that happened in 2001. We are still having train derailments today in 2023. I think we will keep having them happen too. The irony will be that it will continue to surprise us.
The only short term solution I can think of to reduce these things from happening would be crippling fines to companies who allow these types of things to happen. The fines would have to be so large that it would mean any spill, crash, or derailment could result in significant financial harm to the liable party (near bankruptcy). This in turn would result in better infrastructure being put in place and send the cost of shipping chemicals up significantly. Higher chemical prices would in turn drive up the price of goods for consumers and maybe reflect the true cost of our current world because these are costs we externalize to the unlucky residents where accidents happen.
The only long term solution I can think of (right now) would be to change the origins of our economy away from petrochemicals and towards one of biomass, biocatalysis, and biotechnology. New monomers and polymers that are less harmful. An innovation towards safety and security through the principles of green chemistry. We would likely need to consume energy more efficiently or perhaps even reduce that consumption, but I think I’m veering into “crazy internet person” when I propose these things.
What do you think we should do?