The train-wreck in Ohio. A pollution history and the content of the railroad tank cars. A Limerick.


In 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948 and 1952 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire. Here is a picture of the 1948 fire.

( Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library)

The river caught fire a few more times, but nobody cared until 1969, the last time it happened. I remember in 1965 hearing thee song ‘Pollution’ by Tom Lehrer

In the second World War the oil refineries dumped the unwanted products from the refining process in the Delaware River, and things got so bad it stripped the protective paint from the hulls of ships coming in to the Philadelphia harbor.

We tend to forget how bad things were before there were any substantial environmental regulations. Factories solved their exhaust problems by building higher chimneys, spreading the poison over a larger area.

The content of the derailed tank cars.

There were five tank cars in the derailed part containing Vinyl Chloride. Vinyl Chloride is a gas, stored under pressure ( 3,5 atmospheres at room temperature). When the cars derailed, there was fire from burning and Norfolk Southern were afraid the cars would overheat and explode, so they drained them and dumped the vinyl chloride in a trench and set fire to it rather than hosing down the cars with water to lower the temperature. Vinyl Chloride when burning produces hydrochloride and carbon monoxide. Combined with water vapor it produces hydrochloric acid, which causes instant emphysema among other things. In addition it is a known carcinogen.

One tank car contained Ethylene Glycol Mono-butane Ether. It is a known health hazard but not a carcinogen as far as I know.

One car contained Ethylhexyl, Acrylate and the tank was breached and the content spilled. There should be no particular health hazard from this tank car.

One car contains Isobutylene, a flammable gas. Most of it is still in than car.

One tank car contained ButylAcrylate and al its content was spilled on the ground. It is now being leached into the soil and has now been detected in the Ohio river just upstream from Cincinnati. It is not particularly toxic in the small concentration moving down the Ohio River, but yet.

And there was to tank cars containing benzene, a known carcinogen, but none of the benzene has leaked out.

The question is:What are the long term effects of this major spill and fire. Time will tell. It sometimes takes decades for cancer and respiratory diseases to develop.

Oh, and by the way, it is simpler, safer, much cheaper and more efficient to use pipelines. With a thousand derailments a year it is a wonder these types of catastrophies do not disrupt the supply chain more than they do.

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Retired engineer, graduated from Chalmers Technical University a long time ago with a degree in Technical Physics. Career in Aerospace, Analytical Chemistry, computer chip manufacturing and finally adjunct faculty at Pennsylvania State University, taught just one course in Computer Engineering, the Capstone Course.

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