Ohio toxic train derailment: EPA vows to support East Palestine as rail company handles cleanup

'In no way, shape or form, will Norfolk Southern get off the hook for the mess that they created,' the EPA Administrator said.

ByNouran Salahieh, CNN, CNNWire
Wednesday, February 22, 2023
EPA takes action against rail company after toxic train derailment
The Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday it intends to compel Norfolk Southern to pay for all cleaning if it fails to complete any actions the agency deems necessary.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio -- The nation's top environmental official promised to support East Palestine, Ohio, throughout the cleanup of a toxic train derailment there that fueled anxiety about potential health effects and said the train's operator must pay to clean "the mess that they created."

The US Environmental Protection Agency ordered the operator, Norfolk Southern, to handle and pay for all necessary cleanup in a legally binding order that will take effect Thursday.

"In no way, shape or form, will Norfolk Southern get off the hook for the mess that they created," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said, vowing to use the agency's "full enforcement authority."

President Joe Biden echoed the sentiment Tuesday, calling the EPA's order "common sense." "This is their mess. They should clean it up," the president said of Norfolk Southern in an Instagram post.

Norfolk Southern will be required to Identify and clean up any contaminated soil and water resources, reimburse the EPA for cleaning services to be offered to residents and businesses, attend and participate in public meetings at the EPA's request and post information online, among other requirements.

"I know this order cannot undo the nightmare that families in this town have been living with. But it will begin to deliver much-needed justice for the pain that Norfolk Southern has caused," Regan said.

MORE: More than 7 tons of contaminated soil, 1M gallons of water evacuated from Ohio train derailment site

What train company crashed in Ohio? Contaminated water and soil was evacuated from the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment, Norfolk Southern said.

As part of the continued fallout, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said state environmental officials made a "criminal referral" against Norfolk Southern. The Ohio attorney general is also reviewing all actions the law "allows him to take," Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said.

The backlash comes as residents of the small village grapple with fears about the safety of their air and water in the aftermath of the February 3 derailment, which ignited a fire that burned for days and prompted crews to intentionally release vinyl chloride from the train cars to help avert an explosion -- a move that sent a thick plume of smoke over the small community.

Skepticism further spread in the community as some residents have reported health problems, like rashes and headaches, and after thousands of fish died in Ohio waterways after the train derailed.

Air and water quality testing has so far found no dangers to residents of the small village near the Pennsylvania border after the February 3 derailment, and Regan said he has "absolute confidence" in the agency's data.

READ: After Ohio train derailment, residents are living the plot of 'White Noise,' a movie they helped make

Toasting with glasses of tap water from the home of an East Palestine, Ohio, resident, Regan and DeWine sought to quell bubbling concerns about the safety of the water.

Regan promised transparency to the resident, saying "we will continue to show up."

"If the homes have been cleared and tested for drinking water, then we trust that data," he said.

Calls mount for accountability amid criticism of Norfolk Southern

Pennsylvania's governor -- who also ordered evacuations after the derailment -- alleged Tuesday that the train operator gave officials "inaccurate information" and "refused to explore or articulate alternative courses of action," in the days following the toxic wreck.

"In sum, Norfolk Southern injected unnecessary risk into this crisis," Shapiro said, adding he plans to hold the company accountable for their actions.

CNN has reached out to the company for comment on the governor's claims and the criminal referral.

Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw said that his company has been aligned with the EPA and local efforts on the ground in East Palestine since the train derailment.

"From day one I've made the commitment that Norfolk Southern is going to remediate the site," Shaw told CNN Tuesday. "We're going to do it through continuous long-term air and water monitoring. We're going to help the residents of this community recover and we're going to invest in the long-term health of this community and we're going to make Norfolk Southern a safer railroad."

Norfolk Southern has committed millions of dollars worth of financial assistance to East Palestine, including $3.4 million in direct financial assistance to families and a $1 million community assistance fund, among other aid, the company has said.

Shaw said that his company continues to monitor air and water quality and has conducted hundreds of tests with thousands of data points, "all of which have come back clean."

The toxic derailment, which upended life in the community, has prompted calls for better rail safety and fueled questions about laws surrounding the movement of toxic substances.

DeWine said it is "absurd" that the law did not require Norfolk Southern to notify officials that a train with hazardous materials was coming through the state.

"There is something fundamentally wrong when a train like this could come into a state and the current law does not require, despite what they were hauling, does not require them to notify the state or local officials," DeWine said. "The fact that this train did not qualify under current law requiring the railroad company to make that notification is just absurd."

President Biden called on Congress to help implement rail safety measures and accused the Trump administration of limiting the government's ability to strengthen rail safety measures.

"This is more than a train derailment or a toxic waste spill -- it's years of opposition to safety measures coming home to roost," Biden wrote in an Instagram post.

Contaminated soil remains underneath train tracks

The continued cleanup efforts involve removing contaminated soil and water from under the railroad tracks at the derailment site. The tracks will be lifted to remove that soil, Ohio officials said.

DeWine said 4,588 cubic yards of soil and 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water have so far been removed from East Palestine.

The contaminated soil became a point of contention last week after a public document sent to the EPA on February 10 did not list soil removal among completed cleanup activities. It is not yet known what significance or impact the soil that was not removed before the railroad reopened on February 8 will have had on the surrounding areas.

"There's been a concern by citizens, very understandably, that the railroad started, got the tracks back on and started running and the soil under the tracks had not been dealt with," DeWine said. "So, under the administrator's order, that soil will be removed. So the tracks will have to be taken up and that soil will have to be removed."

'We just want to go back to living our lives'

As crews continue cleanup efforts and officials promise accountability, East Palestine residents are still dealing with fears surrounding potential impacts from the toxic wreck.

Officials have repeatedly assured residents that tests show no dangers lurking in the air or water. Crews have checked hundreds of homes and have not detected any dangerous levels of contaminants, the EPA said.

Still, as worries remain, the state opened a new health clinic for East Palestine residents to address the reports of rashes, headaches, nausea and other symptoms.

Asked about the reported symptoms, the EPA administrator said Tuesday that he's "not discounting what people are experiencing" and asked anyone concerned to seek medical attention.

"I believe people when they say that they're facing adverse impacts. And what we're doing is we're asking them to seek medical attention ... then we can take that information and add that as part of our response," Regan said. "We're not discounting what people are experiencing at all. We just ask that they seek medical help while we conduct all of our investigations."

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said that making sure residents feel safe in their homes is his top priority.

"We need our town cleaned up, we need our residents to feel safe in their homes," Conaway said at Tuesday news conference. "That's the number one thing. Your home is your sanctuary: if you don't feel safe in your home, then you're never going to feel safe anywhere."

"We just want to go back to living our lives the way they were," the mayor added.

The-CNN-Wire & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.