EPA to take over cleanup of toxic Ohio derailment disaster
The Washington Post February 21, 2023
The Environmental Protection Agency will take control of the response to the Ohio train derailment and order rail company Norfolk Southern to clean up the contamination, the agency said Tuesday, the Biden administration’s strongest response yet to the disaster.
Rather than clean up the toxic wreck voluntarily, as it has done so far, Norfolk Southern will be required to remediate the site under a plan approved by the EPA, which will also take over some aspects of the response from Ohio. Norfolk Southern will also have to pay the remediation costs — as well as pay for cleaning services that the agency will offer to residents and businesses, participate in public meetings and share information publicly, according to the EPA.
The EPA’s step comes 18 days after the Feb. 3 train derailment, which released toxic chemicals and fumes over a wide area. In the two weeks since evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes, national attention on East Palestine has intensified, as many residents remain angry and fearful about potential contamination and health effects.
The plans, announced by EPA Administrator Michael Regan in East Palestine on Tuesday afternoon, will give the federal government oversight of the massive cleanup through a legally binding order. Regan’s visit to East Palestine, his second in a week, comes amid pressure on the federal government from some lawmakers and residents to step up its response.
“Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess that they created and the trauma that they inflicted on this community,” Regan said at the news briefing. “This order represents one of EPA’s strongest authorities to hold a company accountable for jeopardizing a community’s health and safety.”
The EPA’s move also comes as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said his department would begin a round of inspections on train routes used for transporting hazardous materials and called for the rail industry to implement new safety measures.
In addition, Pennsylvania’s environmental agency has made a criminal referral against Norfolk Southern to the state attorney general, said Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) of Pennsylvania, where residents over the Ohio border were also affected by the toxic emissions. At the briefing with Shapiro, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said his state attorney general planned to “take the appropriate action.”
In announcing the EPA decision, 0fficials did not cite any specific mismanagement by Norfolk Southern, though Regan said the agency was now going to “push them to do it right and to do it as quickly as possible, and do it as transparently as possible.”
Shapiro, who has accused Norfolk Southern of botching the initial emergency response by giving officials inaccurate information and not participating in unified command, said he thought the rail company “needed to be compelled to act.”
“The combination of Norfolk Southern’s corporate greed, incompetence, and lack of care for our residents is absolutely unacceptable to me,” he said at the briefing. “Today is another step toward accountability.”
For days, cleanup has been ongoing in East Palestine and in a local stream. Crews have been digging up a 1,000-foot swath around the tracks and pumping out water, state officials said last week, while federal and state environmental regulators examine long-term mitigation measures aimed at ensuring the safety of water and soil.
Dozens of train cars piled up the night of Feb. 3 in a fiery blaze, prompting evacuations and, two days later, the release into the air of vinyl chloride from five rail cars.
Since then, with chemical odors lingering, residents have reported health symptoms, worried about the possible effect on animals and questioned whether it is safe to stay in the town. Norfolk Southern’s record has come under scrutiny, as have the responses of the EPA and Transportation Department.
Under the EPA’s order, Norfolk Southern will be charged triple costs for anything it does not do, the agency said. The EPA will also take the lead in the response; until now, Ohio agencies and local officials had been leading the effort with support from the EPA.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has promised to clean up the contamination. The company’s representatives skipped a town hall meeting with residents last week. Instead, Shaw published an “open letter” saying the company would stay in East Palestine “for as long as it takes to ensure your safety.”
“I want residents of East Palestine to know that Norfolk Southern will be in their community to help for as long as needed,” Shaw said in a statement Monday, announcing that “a Norfolk Southern railroader who lives in East Palestine” will be employed as a community liaison for one year, one of the various assistance measures the railroad has set up.
EPA officials and DeWine previously said they had secured Norfolk Southern’s commitment to cleaning up and that they would take legal action if the rail company didn’t do the job right. The EPA’s takeover “certainly seems warranted,” said Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA official and executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.
“Short-term work can sometimes involve removal of contaminants or stabilization of a site, long-term cleanup can include, for example, decontamination of polluted groundwater, which can take more time,” he told The Washington Post via email. “EPA has lots of history responding to spills and other accidental releases nationwide, so can bring that expertise to bear.”
The EPA’s new step is taken through CERCLA — the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act — a 1980 law that allows the federal government to take on cleanup of what are commonly known as Superfund sites. The agency said it marked a shift from the emergency response to a longer-term cleanup.
It’s likely to be seen as a push by the Biden administration to take charge of the crisis and quell criticism.
The administration has disputed allegations that it was slow to respond, saying federal employees were on the ground within hours of the crash. DeWine said Tuesday that both state environmental regulators and the EPA were on the scene shortly after the derailment; Regan called the response so far “very effective.”
Referencing both the political criticism and conspiracy theories that have circulated since the derailment, Shapiro said the elected officials involved have “put any kind of partisan politics aside,” adding, “This is not a place for conspiracy theories or political games.”
John Kennedy, a resident of the village, listened to the news conference. Afterward, he said he didn’t know whether he believed officials’ promises that East Palestine wouldn’t be left with a mess, but said he’s been seeing the EPA at work all around town.
“I don’t know what more the EPA can do,” said Kennedy, 57.
Another resident, Andrea Smith, said she thought the crisis responders were “doing good.” She’s most concerned about the town’s water, including the contamination that entered a local stream. She described her family as staying calm but drinking bottled water, just in case.
“You can still smell it by the creek — the toxic paint smell,” she said.
DeWine asked Congress to hold hearings and act on rail safety. The train that derailed was not classified as a high-hazardous-material train, DeWine has said, meaning it did not have to provide notification that it was coming through.
“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. That simply has to be changed,” DeWine said.
Later this week, East Palestine residents and business owners will be offered cleaning services, the EPA said. Teams sent by the federal government to provide residents with health examinations were set to arrive Tuesday.
“I recognize that no matter how much data we collect or provide, it will not be enough to completely reassure everybody,” Regan said. “It may not be enough to restore the sense of safety and security that this community once had. But we’re going to work together day by day for as long as it takes to make sure that this community feels at home once again.”
The total effect of the derailment is not yet known. On Monday, Norfolk Southern said it had removed at least 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil and 1.1 million gallons of tainted water from the site.
But that doesn’t represent the full extent of the contamination. Chemicals also leaked into local waterways and went into the air, and experts have said it will take time to determine whether there is lasting contamination in soil and water.
“I just want them to fix our town,” East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said at the briefing, “and put it back to where it was.”
The Washington Post’s Scott Dance contributed to this report.