A near-daily disaster; hazardous chemical accidents common across US

By Carey Gillam

Amid fears about the toxic chemicals released in the East Palestine train derailment, public officials have clamored to reassure community members that the resulting contaminated air, water and soil is being cleaned up, and their tiny Ohio town made safe.

In a recent press conference, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine lamented the toll taken on the residents there, saying “no other community should have to go through this.”

But an analysis of a combination of data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and by nonprofit groups that track chemical accidents in the US shows that accidental releases – be they through train derailments, truck crashes, pipeline ruptures or industrial plant leaks and spills – are happening regularly across the country. One data set shows incidents occurring, on average, every two days.

“These kinds of hidden disasters happen far too frequently,” said Mathy Stanislaus, who served as assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management during the Obama administration. Stanislaus led programs focused on the cleanup of contaminated hazardous waste sites, chemical plant safety, oil spill prevention, and emergency response.

In the first seven weeks of 2023 alone, there were more than 30 incidents recorded by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, roughly one every day and a half. Last year, the coalition recorded 188, up from 177 in 2021. The group has tallied more than 470 incidents since it started counting in April 2020.

The incidents logged by the coalition range widely in severity but each involves the accidental release of chemicals that pose potential threats to human and environmental health.

In September, nine people were hospitalized and 300 evacuated in California after a spill of caustic materials at a recycling facility. In October, officials ordered residents to shelter in place after an explosion and fire at a petrochemical plant in Louisiana.

In November, more than 1,100 gallons of firefighting foam containing toxic chemicals spilled out of a US Navy storage facility in Hawaii where a prior fuel leak had already contaminated drinking water and made some people ill. Also in November, more than 100 residents of Atchinson, Kansas were treated for respiratory problems and schools were evacuated after an accident at a beverage manufacturing facility created a chemical cloud over the town.

Among multiple incidents in December, an explosion at a biodiesel plant in Iowa injured 10 people and forced the evacuation of many others, and a large pipeline ruptured in rural northern Kansas, smothering the surrounding land and waterways in 588,000 gallons of diluted bitumen crude oil. Hundreds of workers are still trying to clean up the pipeline mess at a cost pegged around $488 million.