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Ohio train derailment: Catholic diocese prays as concern about hazardous fumes rises

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An early February train derailment in rural Ohio led to a major ecological disaster after hazardous materials caused a massive fire and smoke plume, which prompted widespread evacuations.

The roughly 150-car Norfolk Southern train derailed near the town of East Palestine, about an hour northwest of Pittsburgh, on Feb. 3. Twenty of the cars were carrying hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, and caught fire, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Although no injuries have yet been reported as a result of the crash, on Feb. 6 a “controlled release of toxic fumes” was conducted leading to a massive, black smoke plume being released into the atmosphere, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported. Among the gasses released, officials said, was the colorless phosgene, a highly toxic gas with a strong odor that can cause vomiting and breathing trouble and was used as a weapon in World War I, PBS Newshour reported. 

The area surrounding the crash was evacuated as a result, and although authorities have now allowed residents to return, questions about air and water quality near the crash site remain.

Bishop David Bonnar of the local Diocese of Youngstown urged prayers for those affected by the disaster and noted that the evacuation zone included the territory of a local Catholic parish.

“The prayers of the Diocese of Youngstown are with all those affected and displaced by the train derailment in East Palestine, Columbiana County. We acknowledge with gratitude the heroic efforts of the first responders and the agencies that have assisted in this difficult situation,” Bonnar said in a Feb. 5 statement.

The territory of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, located in East Palestine, was within the evacuation zone, Bonnar said.

“Given the magnitude of this event, it is miraculous that there were no fatalities or injuries. I cannot help but think that the Blessed Mother was watching over this community. I ask for continued prayers for the health and safety of all involved,” Bonnar concluded.

Our Lady of Lourdes parish shared on its Facebook page that it will be hosting a free, open-to-all community meal on Feb. 18 from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

“Inviting all police officers, firefighters, EMS, everyone welcome. Take a break [and] come enjoy some down time. Please pass the word!” the church wrote on Facebook.

The church also shared on Feb. 11 that the church hall would be open to people affected by the train derailment from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday through Wednesday. The parish said it had food, water, cleaning supplies, and diapers to offer to those in need.

Father David Misbrener, pastor of the parishes of St. Jude and Our Lady of Lourdes, wrote in a Feb. 12 parish bulletin that the Youngstown bishop had contacted him to check in on the parish community.

“Bishop Bonnar was the first person who called me after the accident happened. I spoke with the bishop twice, both on Saturday and Sunday, and I think it is important for all of you to know the pastoral care and concern he had for us,” Misbrener wrote.

The bulletin listed numerous parish events as being canceled as a result of the train disaster. Misbrener also thanked “our parishioners who helped serve the evacuees, especially our Gift of Mary group.”

U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, a Catholic who took office at the start of this year, issued a statement Feb. 13 wherein he thanked the local fire department in East Palestine for their work battling the fire and called on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist the firefighters and other first responders.

“This is a complex environmental disaster with impacts that may be difficult to assess in the short term. Long-term study will be imperative. As will long-term commitment to remediation by Norfolk Southern for the property damaged, the wildlife disrupted, and the community scarred by this accident,” Vance wrote.

“So far, we have been told that air and drinking water tests performed by the state and federal Environmental Protection Agencies, the Ohio National Guard, and Norfolk Southern have been encouraging. We continue to monitor environmental reports from multiple agencies about the quality of the air and water in the region. I have heard alarming anecdotes about contaminated waterways and effects on wildlife. I encourage anyone with credible reports of environmental harms to contact my office. In the meantime, we will continue to engage with the relevant agencies and monitor the situation in the region.”

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Ohio train derailment: Catholic diocese prays as concern about hazardous fumes rises