This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio.

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Washington CNN  — 

On the eve of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, American infrastructure is back in the worst kind of spotlight.

The fiery derailment of train cars carrying hazardous chemicals on the eastern edge of Ohio has led to an evacuation zone across both Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Five of the derailed train cars are carrying vinyl chloride – a chemical that is currently unstable and could explode, hurling toxic fumes into the air and shooting deadly shrapnel as far as a mile away, officials said.

“There is a high probability of a toxic gas release and/or explosion,” Columbiana County Sheriff Brian McLaughlin warned. “Please, for your own safety, remove your families from danger.”

The derailment is, of course, felt most acutely in the surrounding community, where residents who don’t evacuate face arrest. But the incident also highlights the exact kind of concern that led to a considerable investment in rail projects as part of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure law passed in late 2021.

To better understand the derailment in Ohio, and how current or future legislation could help avoid similar situations, we turned to Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California.