Chemicals, Enforcement and Inspection, Hazardous and Solid Waste

EPA Takes Charge of Ohio Train Derailment Cleanup

On February 21, 2023, the EPA announced it would take charge of the cleanup from a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that released hazardous chemicals into the environment.

The Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred on February 3, 2023. The company reported that an unknown number of the 150 train cars had derailed, but 20 of the cars were listed as carrying hazardous materials. Approximately 50 cars were affected by the derailment, with the rest being uncoupled and removed from the scene.

Under EPA orders, Norfolk Southern must:

  • Identify and clean up contaminated soil and water resources.
  • Reimburse the EPA for cleaning services to be offered to residents and businesses to provide an additional layer of reassurance, which will be conducted by EPA staff and contractors.
  • Attend and participate in public meetings at the EPA’s request, and post information online.
  • Pay for the EPA’s costs for work performed under this order.

As part of the order, the EPA will approve a work plan outlining all steps necessary to clean up the environmental damage caused by the derailment. If the company fails to complete any actions ordered by the EPA, the Agency will immediately step in, conduct the necessary work, and then seek to compel Norfolk Southern to pay triple the cost.

“Norfolk Southern said it has already been paying for the cleanup in East Palestine and will continue to do so,” says NPR.

“We recognize that we have a responsibility, and we have committed to doing what’s right for the residents of East Palestine,” the railroad said, according to NPR. “We are committed to thoroughly and safely cleaning the site, and we are reimbursing residents for the disruption this has caused in their lives.”

NPR adds that Norfolk Southern “has committed more than $6 million to date in East Palestine, it said, including $3.8 million in direct financial assistance to families impacted by the accident.”

However, many in the community don’t trust that cleanup efforts will completely remedy the problem, says The New York Times. Residents near the site report experiencing skin rashes and headaches.

“State and federal officials have said repeatedly that they have yet to detect dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or municipal water, citing preliminary data from hundreds of homes in the town of roughly 4,700 people,” The New York Times adds. “Teams of experts from top environmental and health agencies have been fanning out across the region to test whether chemicals carried by the Norfolk Southern train or burned off days after the derailment have contaminated the air or water.

“The threat of possible long-term exposure to the chemical cocktail released into the air and water, coupled with a deep fear that the town and its neighboring villages will be forgotten in the coming months, has also left many residents feeling as if they are on their own to prove that it is safe to remain or return through means that include paying out of pocket for their own tests. Some have become novice chemists, rattling off the names and effects of chemical compounds that had no meaning to them two weeks ago.”

Moreover, residents are “deeply suspicious of Norfolk Southern conducting its tests in tandem with government agencies and have questioned whether the tests are accounting for the creation of other chemicals when officials decided to burn the cargo of a car on the brink of explosion,” The New York Times continues.

Ohio residents are increasingly uneasy in light of a second Ohio Norfolk Southern train derailment, which occurred on March 4, 2023. Although no hazardous chemical release was reported in the second derailment, residents within 1,000 feet of the accident site were asked to shelter indoors, reports the New York Post.

As of February 20, 2023, Norfolk Southern said that “more than 9,000 tons of contaminated debris and soil have been excavated for proper disposal and are awaiting final approvals for transport to a permitted disposal facility,” says Engineering News-Record (ENR). “More than 1 million gallons of affected water have also been removed for disposal.”

The Ohio EPA has announced that the municipal drinking water in the area is safe but advised those with private wells to stick with bottled water until source waters can be tested, according to the ENR article.

After the train accidents, Norfolk Southern announced new safety measures to aid in the prevention of future train derailments, notes CNN.

For more information on testing and monitoring at the accident site, see the EPA East Palestine, Ohio, Train Derailment Emergency Response website.

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