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Railroad Crash Fallout Spanned 16 States, 540,000 Square Miles

A study found that there were elevated levels of the chemicals in an estimated 14% of U.S. land.

A new study out of the University of Wisconsin has uncovered the truly alarming consequences of a recent rail disaster - an incident with toxic implications well beyond what researchers were expecting.

In 2023, a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in the Ohio town of East Palestine. Across the nation, transfixed observers watched in horror as officials deemed the best course of action to be intentionally burning off the excess chemicals and sending plumes of black smoke into the air, or risk the rail cars exploding.

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But it wasn’t just the news that reached far and wide; researchers say the pollution from the crash has too. 

David Gay, coordinator of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the study’s lead author, said everyone expected a local contamination issue, however the data tells a much more horrifying story: they say that they’ve uncovered contamination from the event across 16 states – an area that spans 540,000 square miles.

As reported by Grist, Gay and his team tested snow samples in the weeks following the derailment and found that there were elevated levels of the chemicals in an estimated 14% of U.S. land. The research also uncovered signs of contamination from the event in all of the Great Lakes except Superior.
Gay said he was shocked that the contamination reached as far as it did, saying “I never would have guessed it would have been in Wisconsin, no way in hell.”

While local residents were evacuated after the initial accident, they were allowed to return after a week’s time, at which point many reported strong chemical odors throughout the town. So far, the environmental cleanup in and around East Palestine has cost Norfolk Southern $800 million, though the research suggests that it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of pollution. Said Gay, “This accident wasn’t just in Ohio.”

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