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Ohio train derailment: Federal interagency teams go door-to-door in East Palestine

Michael Swensen/Getty Images

(EAST PALESTINE, Ohio) — Joint teams from multiple federal agencies have started canvassing homes in a tiny Ohio village upended by a hazardous train derailment to help provide support for affected residents.


Interagency teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began the door-to-door outreach in East Palestine, Ohio, on Saturday. The teams are “equipped with the most up-to-date and accurate information, meeting impacted residents where they are in order to better connect them with resources from government and non-profit organizations, gather situational awareness about ongoing concerns and identify any unmet needs,” according to a joint press release.

As of Sunday afternoon, the teams have had “more than 350 interactions” with East Palestine residents, answering questions and distributing information, according to FEMA Region 5 Administrator Tom Sivak. FEMA also has 49 personnel on the ground to support the larger federal effort, Sivak said.

“We understand residents have a lot of questions and we will continue to ramp up our efforts to provide information needed so families can begin to feel safe again in the community,” Sivak told reporters during a Sunday afternoon press conference.

“Every disaster is different and we want to hear from the impacted residents. We want to hear your concerns, your needs and your worries,” he added. “And we will work with you to match you with the assistance you need.”

A source familiar with the federal interagency outreach told ABC News that it’s essentially a concerted effort to ensure the community has awareness of and access to all of the resources available to them.

On the night of Feb. 3, about 50 cars of a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed in a fiery crash on the outskirts of East Palestine, which is nestled near Ohio’s state line with Pennsylvania. Eleven of the derailed cars were transporting hazardous materials, five of which contained vinyl chloride, a highly volatile colorless gas produced for commercial uses. Several cars were also carrying ethyl acrylate and isobutylene, which are considered to be very toxic and possibly carcinogenic. There were no injuries reported from the accident, according to officials.

Efforts to contain a fire at the derailment site stalled the following night, as firefighters withdrew from the blaze due to concerns about air quality and explosions. About half of East Palestine’s roughly 4,700 residents were warned to leave before officials decided on Feb. 6 to conduct a controlled release and burn of the toxic vinyl chloride from the five tanker cars, which were in danger of exploding. A large ball of fire and a plume of black smoke filled with contaminants could be seen billowing high into the sky from the smoldering derailment site as the controlled burn took place that afternoon, prompting concerns from residents about the potential effects.

A mandatory evacuation order for homes and businesses within a one-mile radius of the derailment site was lifted on Feb. 8, after air and water samples taken the day before were deemed safe, officials said.

FEMA deployed a team to East Palestine on Feb. 18 to help support the ongoing operations there.

On Feb. 23, the National Transportation Safety Board released preliminary findings from its ongoing investigation into the Feb. 3 derailment. The NTSB report reads, in part: “Surveillance video from a local residence showed what appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment. The wheel bearing and affected wheelset have been collected as evidence and will be examined by the NTSB.” During a press conference, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy called the derailment “100% preventable” and said it was “no accident.”

U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced on Feb. 21 that his agency is ordering Norfolk Southern “to conduct all necessary actions associated with the cleanup from the East Palestine train derailment.” The Atlanta-based rail operator will be required to continue cleaning up the contaminated soil and water and transport it safely; reimburse the EPA for cleaning services; and attend public meetings at the EPA’s request and share information. If Norfolk Southern does not comply, the company will be ordered to pay triple the cost, according to Regan.

As of Feb. 22, Norfolk Southern said it has excavated more than 4,800 cubic yards of soil — “or approximately 400 truckloads” — from the derailment site. In addition, 1.7 million gallons of liquid — “or approximately 200 tanker loads” — have been collected for disposal, according to the company. Norfolk Southern has not said which chemicals were found in the material that was removed.

The office of Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine announced on Feb. 25 that the removal of hazardous waste from the derailment site has been paused by the U.S. EPA. After learning that “Norfolk Southern had chosen to contract with licensed hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities in Texas and Michigan,” the U.S. EPA “ordered the transport be stopped so that additional oversight measures could be put in place to supervise where Norfolk Southern disposes of the contaminated materials,” according to a press release from DeWine’s office. Of the 20 truckloads — or approximately 280 tons — of hazardous solid waste hauled away from the derailment site, 15 truckloads of contaminated soil had already been disposed of at the Michigan facility. Five truckloads of contaminated soil were returned to East Palestine, the governor’s office said.

The Texas facility “will dispose of liquid waste that has already been trucked out of East Palestine,” DeWine’s office said, but will not accept any additional liquid waste from the derailment site “at this time.” Currently, about 102,000 gallons of liquid waste and 4,500 cubic yards of solid waste remain in storage on site in East Palestine, not including the five truckloads returned to the village. Additional solid and liquid wastes are being generated as the cleanup progresses, according to the governor’s office.

DeWine’s office said the U.S. EPA has conducted indoor air testing at a total of 574 homes in East Palestine and no contaminants associated with the Feb. 3 derailment have been detected. Meanwhile, outdoor air monitoring remains ongoing with 15 air monitors in the area, which similarly have not yet detected any contaminants associated with the incident.

The Ohio EPA will continue to test East Palestine’s municipal water supply once a week “out of an abundance of caution” to ensure it is safe to drink, the governor’s office said. While the majority of homes in the area get drinking water from the municipal supply, some get theirs from private wells. The Columbiana County General Health District has received verified laboratory results from 12 private water systems that were sampled between Feb. 10 and 14. Of those, eight showed no detectable contaminants while three had trace detections at levels well below safe drinking water standards. There was no evidence linking those trace detections to the Feb. 3 derailment. To date, the Columbiana County General Health District has sampled 119 private wells in the East Palestine area, with the final testing results pending, according to DeWine’s office.

The governor’s office said residents whose drinking water is sourced from private wells should continue drinking bottled water until the testing results are returned. Officials have underscored that those who get their drinking water from private wells should get it tested, especially since those wells may be closer to the surface than municipal water wells and thus potentially easier for any contaminants to seep into.

ABC News’ Victoria Arancio, Peter Charalambous, Brandon Chase, Meredith Deliso, Stephanie Ebbs, Alexandra Faul, Julia Jacobo, Mary Kekatos, Amanda Maile, Will McDuffie and Alex Presha contributed to this report.

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