Ohio train derailment: EPA orders Norfolk Southern to clean contaminated soil, water

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday ordered Norfolk Southern Railway to pay the costs of cleaning soil and water resources contaminated by a train derailment earlier this month in East Palestine.

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The order also requires the company to reimburse the EPA for cleaning services offered to residents, to participate in public meetings at the agency’s request and to pay for other work done under the order by the EPA. If the company fails to follow the order, officials said they will step in to do the work “and then seek to compel Norfolk Southern to pay triple the cost.”

“What happened here is traumatic,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said Tuesday at a news conference. “In no way, shape or form will Norfolk Southern get off the hook for the mess that they created.”

Testing of water and soil has been ongoing since after a train derailed on the night of Feb. 3 in East Palestine. The Norfolk Southern train was carrying a variety of items, including frozen vegetables, malt liquor and paraffin wax, according to officials. Twenty of the cars also carried hazardous materials.

Thirty-eight cars derailed just before 9 p.m. — including 10 containing hazardous materials — and sparked a fire that damaged 12 other cars, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The threat of an explosion prompted authorities to evacuate residents and perform a controlled release of hazardous materials that sent thick waves of flame and smoke into the air.

Residents have since been allowed to return to the area, though many have voiced concerns over their safety and health in light of the toxic chemicals introduced into the environment.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday that a clinic has been opened in the area to respond to residents’ concerns. He and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said tests of water in the area and beyond are being run continuously to ensure safety.

“This is trauma,” DeWine said. “This community’s been traumatized. This is just a tough, tough situation that has occurred.”

On Tuesday, Shapiro accused Norfolk Southern of failing to work with authorities coordinating the response in the early hours after the derailment. He said that officials have made a criminal referral to the Pennsylvania’s acting attorney general. DeWine said Ohio’s attorney general would “take the appropriate action. … I guarantee you that.”

The Ohio governor said he and Shapiro have talked regularly since the derailment, which happened near the border between the two states.

“One of the things that he and I have talked a lot about is really the need we have for Congress to take a hard look at rail safety,” DeWine said.

“There is something fundamentally wrong when a train like this can 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. That simply has to be changed. The fact that this train did not qualify under current law requiring the railroad company to make that notification is just absurd. It makes absolutely no sense at all.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, said he has been talking to members of Congress about the incident in East Palestine, though he added that authorities were awaiting the results of an NTSB investigation into the cause of the derailment.

“Much of what you’re talking about here and what’s going to happen on accountability, on what happened, how it happened and why it happened, will be begun once the National Transportation Safety Board releases its investigation and we find out what happened,” he said. “That will dictate whether there are laws, regulations that need to be changed, whether there were rules that were violated — we don’t know that yet and we won’t know that until the NTSB releases its report.”

Last week, officials with the NTSB said that surveillance video from a home appeared to show a wheel bearing “in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment.” Authorities continue to investigate.

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