The Norfolk Southern Derailment in East Palestine is BAD, but not for the reasons you may be thinking

Clean Air received several inquiries this week from WNY residents concerned about possible air quality issues locally related to the Norfolk Southern Derailment in East Palestine, OH. This worry is understandable – the images of a looming black cloud are shocking, and the information floating around has been confusing and contradictory.

We’re also far more aware now with the growth in western wildfires, worsened by climate change, that smoke can carry very far, making our summers here in WNY hazy.

We want to be clear – the risk of any health and environmental impacts on us here in WNY, over 150 miles away from the East Palestine derailment, is not zero, but is statistically so low that it may as well be. 

The danger from this derailment is to the community of East Palestine and to folks who live in the surrounding area. 

Official statements during the initial fire called for an evacuation of a one mile radius, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection called for residents within two miles to shelter in place. Dead fish and a sheen on the water was reported five miles away, and a lawsuit filed by residents is for up to 30 miles surrounding

For a local comparison, let’s remember the Bethlehem Steel fire in 2016 – the smoke from that fire was visible for miles, with some officials concerned about the smoke as far south as Orchard Park. NYS DEC detected contaminants in the air in Lackawanna for several days after the fire was put out. Coverage of the fire was featured in national news outlets, like the New York Times. It was an environmental disaster for Lackawanna, Buffalo, and the surrounding suburbs, and, for those who live or lived nearby, still is.

That said, it was unlikely you were concerned at all about environmental contamination from this fire if you lived in Syracuse or even Rochester – the distance was far enough to reduce any risk to you.

There are, however, several direct impacts related to this incident that we hope our members and supporters will come away with, and be ready to take action on.


  • Our air quality has been poor recently, but this is due to our existing local pollution sources and current weather patterns, which are far more of a risk to the health and well being of WNY residents.
    • Erie and Niagara County have close to three dozen Title V facilities, many located within our membership neighborhoods. These permits allow these facilities to emit a restricted amount of air pollution into our communities – worse, as our members who live with the health impacts from Tonawanda Coke can attest, other businesses are run by irresponsible managers who do not even follow the restrictions of their permits, and our regulators are so understaffed and under resourced that they cannot always act.
    • Our continued reliance on fossil fuels for the heating and fueling of our cars and homes adds to local air pollution, and in certain weather conditions, like cold winter days with dry air, that pollution becomes trapped at the ground level.
    • Join us on March 16 at our General Meeting to learn more about Air Quality – click here to register.



  • Part of household disaster planning should include plans for chemical spills and industrial contamination.
    • Industrial contamination from accidents will continue to remain a fact of our lives so long as we continue to rely on a fossil fuel based economy. We should all take time to plan for industrial accidents in our neighborhoods. What would you need to do to shelter in place? Do you have the means to seal off a room? And, if it comes to it, do you have plans for what to do if an evacuation is called for? 
    • Check out for more resources, and join Clean Air for our next mutual aid disaster prep trainings.


  • No more sacrifice zones.
    • Ultimately, freight rail needs to be part of our transition to a renewable economy, but we need to decarbonize to phase down and eliminate our demand for dangerous fossil fuels and petrochemicals that are currently being carried on rail, and we need a Just Transition that prioritizes both our communities as well as workers in the planning and implementation.

In the following few weeks, we will post a couple more blog entries on the East Palestine derailment and how we can all take action in support. In the meantime, we encourage our members to support these mutual aid requests and to sign this petition being shared by affected communities.

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