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Indiana communities at risk for train disasters like the one that devastated Ohio town

Editor's note: This story was originally published in February.  We are republishing it as we look back at some of our most-read stories of the year.

On Feb. 3, the world was flipped upside-down for residents of a small Eastern Ohio town — a community not unlike dozens all across Indiana.

A passing freight train jumped the tracks late that night, spewing flammable and toxic chemicals into the air and water. East Palestine and its residents have been reeling from the environmental disaster ever since.

While the investigation into the crash continues, labor leaders and industry experts say trains have become less safe and there is a growing risk for accidents like the one in Ohio. The next one could happen right here in Indiana, where nearly every day trains hauling hazardous materials roll over the network of more than 5,000 miles of track that weave across the state.

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In fact, the train that derailed in Ohio passed through Indiana on its journey and already had shown signs of trouble.

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Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4, 2023. - The train accident sparked a massive fire and evacuation orders, officials and reports said Saturday. No injuries or fatalities were reported after the 50-car train came off the tracks late February 3 near the Ohio-Pennsylvania state border. The train was shipping cargo from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, when it derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. (Photo by DUSTIN FRANZ / AFP) (Photo by DUSTIN FRANZ/AFP via Getty Images) ORIG FILE ID: AFP_338J73M.jpg

The Norfolk Southern train departed from Madison, Ill. and crossed Indiana on a route taking it through Lafayette, Peru and Fort Wayne and several other smaller towns before heading into Ohio —– all the while carrying the same chemicals responsible for the ongoing disaster. It even broke apart between Decatur, Ill. and Peru, Ind., experts said, possibly because the train's length, weight and make-up made it heavy and difficult to handle.

“Anyone of those communities the train went through could have been impacted like East Palestine has been,” said Kenny Edwards, the Indiana state legislative director for SMART Transportation Division, a rail labor union.

Edwards and other critics fear safety is being compromised by railroad cost-cutting efforts, including reduced training, workforce reductions, longer trains and the industry's lobbying to fight regulations.

“What you saw in East Palestine is the natural arc of all those factors lining up: cutting everything, doing away with regulations, giving money to politicians to prevent safer requirements. That is what’s at the end of that rainbow: East Palestine, Ohio," the labor official said. "And there is nothing stopping that from happening in Indiana or anywhere else.”

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The thousands of miles of railroad lines crisscrossing Indiana pass through big cities including Indianapolis, Evansville and Fort Wayne, as well as small towns such as Attica, Syracuse and Princeton. Nearly 2 million Hoosiers live in communities along railroads. More than half of those people are in the Indianapolis area.

In the past decade, there have been approximately 10,000 railroad incidents across the country involving releases of hazardous chemicals, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They have been caused by a variety of factors: derailment, explosion, operator error, equipment failure, and more.

Roughly 500 of those incidents have been in Indiana, the EPA told IndyStar.

Work begins on a train derailment cleaned up Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Avon, Ind. In the aftermath of the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, labor leaders and industry experts raise safety concerns about trains amid changes in the industry.
Work begins on a train derailment cleaned up Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Avon, Ind. In the aftermath of the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, labor leaders and industry experts raise safety concerns about trains amid changes in the industry.

In the weeks since the train jumped the rails in East Palestine, there have been at least two other rail incidents involving hazardous materials: one near Detroit and the other outside Houston. And just last year, multiple cars derailed at a yard west of Indianapolis in Avon, though no hazmats were released.

While the damage in each incident was less severe than in Ohio, they underscored the ever-present risk — one that often is invisible until it’s too late.

The railroad companies and its industry group, the Association of American Railroads, say they have made significant advances in technology as well as major investments in maintaining and improving infrastructure over the years.

“Let us be clear: Railroads have no higher priority than safety,” AAR spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek said in an emailed response to IndyStar. “The industry has a long history of taking data-driven, proactive steps to enhance safety.”

But the question remains: Is it enough?

Industry experts and Indiana emergency planning officials said now is the time to take a close look and find an answer.

“As tragic as this is, there is a window that’s open to have an opportunity to think about our railroad system — as rail companies, as emergency responders, as the public — and ask what role we play in it and how we can assist in making it better,” said Richard Doyle, Fire Chief of the Lafayette Fire Department.

Toxic chemicals move across Indiana every day 

The investigation of what happened in East Palestine is still underway, but the National Transportation Safety Board believes a wheel bearing in a car overheated and failed immediately before the train derailed.

The train was made up of nearly 150 cars, 20 of which contained hazardous materials. As a result of the derailment, 38 cars left the track — 11 of those being hazmat cars — and a fire ensued.

The tankers were filled with vinyl chloride, an explosive and carcinogenic chemical, and other potentially toxic contaminants that were either released into the air by the fire or spilled into waterways. Natural resource officials estimate more than 43,000 fish and animals in the area died during the derailment.

The train wreck also triggered evacuations for the small Ohio town near the Pennsylvania border because of health concerns. While residents have been cleared to return home, some have complained about headaches, difficulty breathing as well as skin and eye irritation. The EPA has ordered Norfolk Southern, the rail company behind the spill, to clean up the contamination.

In this photo provided by Melissa Smith, a train fire is seen from her farm in East Palestine, Ohio, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. A train derailment and resulting large fire prompted an evacuation order in the Ohio village near the Pennsylvania state line on Friday night, covering the area in billows of smoke lit orange by the flames below.
In this photo provided by Melissa Smith, a train fire is seen from her farm in East Palestine, Ohio, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. A train derailment and resulting large fire prompted an evacuation order in the Ohio village near the Pennsylvania state line on Friday night, covering the area in billows of smoke lit orange by the flames below.

Indiana has dozens, if not hundreds of communities positioned like East Palestine along rail lines. Yet decisions about their safety are often made in faraway boardrooms.

Toxic chemicals and hazardous materials are passing through many communities “every single day,” said Bernie Beier, director of Homeland Security for Allen County. There are around 30 million total rail shipments every year, and roughly 7 to 8% of that traffic is hazmat, according to Kahanek with AAR — that means as many as 2.4 million hazmat shipments across the country each year.

Even if there is an incident less than 1% of the time, the group acknowledged that small percentage has “the potential to dramatically impact the communities served,” Kahanek said. “Railroads take this responsibility seriously and have no higher priority than safety."

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Still, many communities have no idea what is in the train rolling though their downtowns and past backyards, Beier said.