Due to racial segregation, Black folks have historically been more likely to live on the other — or “wrong side” — of the tracks. And in the aftermath of the February Norfolk Southern Railway derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the danger of living in close proximity to train tracks has become a hot topic nationally. 

It’s not just an issue of trains being noisy or contributing to the release of toxic chemicals and soot from idling cars waiting to go over tracks. The risk of exposure to toxic chemicals is much higher for Black folk. For example, there are 92 toxic facilities in a 10-mile radius of St. Louis, a city that’s population is 45% Black. 

According to Timothy Watkins, the CEO of Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a non-profit, community-based org founded in 1965 to improve the quality of life of residents in the Los Angeles neighborhood, derailments have the potential to cause serious harm to Black communities. 

“We’ve told the EPA that some of these chemicals are not supposed to go through residential areas. It creates a fear factor if you live along one of these routes,” Watkins says. Freight trains regularly run down Grandee Avenue in Watts, and along the nearby Alameda Corridor directly east.

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, an estimated 1,704 trains derailed per year from 1990 to 2021. Freight railroads also carried 2.2 million carloads of fertilizers, plastic, and other chemicals in 2021, which means living in close proximity to train tracks has the potential to create both environmental and health problems. 

Within hours of the explosion, the Environmental Protection Agency sent out a team for emergency and environmental response efforts. Nearly half of the 4,000 residents of East Palestine were asked to evacuate, and tens of thousands of wildlife creatures have died.

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The concern surrounding exposure to toxic chemicals goes far beyond one incident in Ohio. Train derailments have recently affected residents in predominantly Black cities like Detroit. 

About two weeks after a train derailed in Ohio, another did in Michigan. Van Buren Township, which is 30 miles west of Detroit, was rocked by another Norfolk Southern Railway train derailing. Although that train was also carrying hazardous material, as far as we know, no chemicals got into the soil or the air.

A full 78% of the population of Detroit identifies as Black, and 38% of folks in Van Buren Township are Black. If toxic chemicals on the train had gotten into the air, residents could face higher chances of asthma, lung cancer, and respiratory problems. 

We’ve told the EPA that some of these chemicals are not supposed to go through residential areas.

Timothy Watkins, CEO of Watts Labor Community Action Committee

It doesn’t come as a surprise that Black folk are three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollution than white folk. 

In the meantime, the U.S. government is making some changes to avoid trains spilling hazardous material. 

Two U.S. senators recently proposed The Railway Safety Act of 2023, which would require train crews to have a two-person minimum. 

Prior to the incident in East Palestine, the Federal Railroad Administration was already considering making two-person crews a requirement. The bill would also have the U.S. Department of Transportation reconsider rules on train size and weight. 

Under the Railway Safety Act of 2023, the Federal Railroad Administration would be required to conduct regular inspections on trains carrying hazardous materials. New rules put in place to regulate the transportation of hazardous materials will not undo how exposure to chemicals has already hurt Black communities, but they could prevent future harm. 

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