Disaster Response in the Time of Chemicals 

  • Victoria Robinson
  • March 27, 2023

Environmental Justice, or EJ, is a polarizing subject in today’s political landscape. Defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” But then, some events highlight its importance and why EJ should not be politicized. 

The East Palestine, OH, train derailment on February 3, 2023, is a prime example of an environmental disaster calling for EJ. The residents need help from EPA and other agencies to implement and enforce environmental laws, regulations, and policies to help them recover, aka Environmental Justice for all living things affected. 

Let’s Review the Facts 

On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern Railway Company (NS) train derailed in East Palestine, OH. According to the 2020 census, East Palestine has a population of 4,761 people (27.5% are children under 18 years old) and is located on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border in the Ohio River watershed between Youngstown, OH and Pittsburgh, PA. 

According to the FRA Office of Safety Analysis, ~1,000 rail accidents occur annually. NS has seen an 80% increase in accidents over the past decade, and at least 20 NS derailments since 2015 have involved chemical discharge (Ohio State Attorney General Lawsuit Against NS). In the East Palestine incident, 11 of the 38 train cars involved in the crash carried the following hazardous materials and caught fire. (The Guardian, February 19, 2023). 

Vinyl chloride  A gas used to make plastic, but when burned creates phosgene: a chemical that can cause eye and throat irritation. 
Butyl acrylate  A combustible liquid that can cause irritation to eyes, skin, and respiratory system when inhaled, absorbed through the skin, and/or ingested. 
Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether (EGBE)  A colorless liquid used in surface coatings that can cause irritation to eyes, nose, and throat; drowsiness, nausea, shaking, and weakness. Repeated exposure may damage bone marrow, blood cells, kidneys, and liver. 
Ethylhexyl acrylate  A compound used to make paints, plastics, and adhesives and can cause skin irritation, allergic skin reactions, and respiratory irritation. 
Isobutylene  A liquefied gas under its own vapor pressure used to help create rubber for tires and inner tubes. It is extremely flammable if inhaled and can cause dizziness, drowsiness, lethargy, nausea, unconsciousness, vomiting, and frostbite if it encounters skin. 
Benzene  Listed as cancerous to humans and effects the central nervous system. Short-term exposure can irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. If swallowed, aspiration into the lungs may result in chemical pneumonitis. 

In addition to the community members, following the event, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) was notified of the impacts on aquatic life. An estimated 3,500 fish (12 different species) were found dead in local streams, tributaries, and waterways near the site. In a story on February 18th, an oily sheen was seen when stirring up the sediment within streams nearby, potentially indicating contamination into the groundwater supply. 

In reaction to the events, NS has committed $5.6 million to East Palestine. ($3.4 million in direct financial assistance to families, $1 million community assistance fund, $1 million budget for the new community liaison, and $220,000 for reimbursement to fund new equipment for first responders). The company set up a hotline for residents if they have questions and hired a contractor to provide residents with air, soil, and water quality testing. 

While multiple agencies have been involved in the support, cleanup, and aftermath―the US EPA has taken the lead and has been on the ground since Day One of the incident. Other agency support includes: The DOT NTSB is leading the investigation into what led to the derailment. In support of community health – the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are deploying a team of medical personnel and toxicologists to conduct public health testing and assessments. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is associated with disaster response but did not have a presence on the ground until February 18th, 2weeks after the derailment. Ohio EPA and US EPA are overseeing the testing. To date, all test results have shown no quality concerns. 

What the Federal Government Needs to Consider 

According to Pew Research, public trust in the federal government remains low, with only two-in-ten Americans trusting the federal government to do what is right “just about always” (2%) or “most of the time” (19%). Pew Research also has seen a decrease in trusting scientists to act in the public’s best interests, with 29% of U.S. adults saying they have a great deal of confidence.  

In order to manage and build public trust with the community, government stakeholders need to prioritize timely, transparent, and easily digestible communications targeted to residents both in East Palestine and surrounding areas.  

Understanding Community Concerns 

First and foremost, the impacts on the community and individuals affected should be the main concern for all government stakeholders. As with any disaster, the victims undergo a range of emotions, questions, and concerns. Their sense of safety has been disrupted, and their everyday lives are affected in their homes and community. The first step is helping answer key questions for the residents about air, land, and water safety, property value and relocation, and essential environmental and health-related testing.  

The challenge will be managing an ever-changing story as government stakeholders sort through infrastructure decisions. It will take each and every stakeholder group working together to reach a mutual agreement on successful responses, safety measures, solutions, and communication with the greater community. 


When it comes to communication, it must be clear, timely, transparent, accessible, and easily understood. This can be challenging with the technical and scientific subject matter in regard to air, water, soil, and health testing. Ensuring the public understands the facts, has access to relevant data, and answers their questions is imperative to disaster response. This emphasizes the role of government communicators in this scenario.  

The public needs to be met where they are in platform, style, and two-way communication. Pairing platforms with the behavior drive funnel is the foundation. Agencies must use various platforms (e.g., websites, social media, press conferences, in-person meetings, and interactions, flyers, etc.) and content tailored to audiences (e.g., leveraging raw data, summarized data, etc.) to reach the targeted audience. To achieve effective communication, agencies should leverage the behavior-driven government funnel (to the right) to grow an aware audience. The ultimate purpose is to drive users to become advocates of the science, mission, and support services provided during disaster relief. 

Developing two-way communication is a major facet of the funnel to build public trust and comradery. Science communication is often thought of as a one-way transmission of information to an audience. However, to support the public, dialog through public engagement helps to ensure common ground and understanding of scientific and technical subject matter among diverse stakeholders (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017). This means creating transparency and feedback loops, where not only are agencies updating the public, but the public can voice their concerns, questions, needs, and updates back to the agencies.  

Ramping Up 

Rapid disaster response requires people and resources to ramp up or scale to meet urgent needs. With the goal of safety for the people in mind, stakeholders should assess the current state, determine the goal’s future state, and fill in any identified gaps. When ramping up disaster responses, agencies need to quickly identify where, when, and what kind of support will be needed, where bottlenecks might occur, and develop solutions to alleviate them. In the case of East Palestine efforts, some potential bottleneck areas include

  • Testing – One major potential bottleneck is scaling testing for air quality, soil, drinking, surface, and groundwater. Testing requires time, people, and resources to ensure smooth operations and timely results. NS and contractors must work alongside the EPA to scale testing.  
  • Hotlines – NS and EPA are setting up hotlines for residents to call to get updated information and resources about testing. Due to the urgent uncertainty among community members, hotlines will experience high call volumes and need to scale staff to support.  
  • Onsite Staff – Agencies must scale their on-the-ground presence in the community. Part of this is so people can see government agency action and support while the agencies can respond in real-time as changes occur. The EPA and other agencies on the ground have also been able to communicate directly with residents.  
  • Healthcare – the community has voiced concerns about the train derailment’s short- and long-term health effects. In response to concerns, a health assessment clinic was set up so the community could speak to registered nurses and receive an evaluation. This effort requires promptly ramping up support to healthcare providers, clinic operations, and processing. 

Communication is key in ensuring transparency throughout overcoming bottlenecks by ensuring citizens and stakeholders receive timely updates and understand the progression of available support resources.  

Final Takeaways 

Effective disaster response requires strategic communications throughout the entire process, from immediate emergency response to environmental cleanup, enforcement, and compliance. Clear, concise, and timely communication helps to facilitate agency decisions based on meaningful engagements with the community and individuals. Communities need to see that their concerns are being considered and addressed. To do this effectively, agencies must ramp up efforts and resources to avoid potential bottlenecks. 

The federal government can lose public trust when communication and actions don’t reflect what communities have conveyed they need. Ineffective communication has caused communities to become skeptical of economic and environmental justice, among other federal government disaster responses. Trust must be rebuilt in communications through consistency, transparency, and strategy to ensure the messages make it to these communities effectively and efficiently. With strategic communications as a guide, all federal agencies can make passive communications and outreach efforts to act and really become citizens first to build a more equitable and just tomorrow.