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Ohio train derailment: Residents confront officials as Norfolk Southern announces new cleanup plan

Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(EAST PALESTINE, Ohio) — Residents of an Ohio village upended by a hazardous train derailment confronted officials about their health and safety concerns on Wednesday night.

“I don’t feel safe in this town,” said one resident, Jim Stewart. “You took it away from me. You took this away from us.”

Local, state and federal leaders along with the head of the rail operator at the center of the crisis fielded questions from residents of East Palestine, Ohio, during a town hall hosted by CNN. The residents were, at times, angry and frustrated as they repeatedly pressed officials on how their safety can be ensured and how long it will take. The officials maintained an even keel on what they have said over the past three weeks: that they are committed to safety, they’re not going anywhere and they’re working to make this right.

“I lost a lot. I lost the value of my home,” Stewart told Norfolk Southern Railway President and CEO Alan Shaw. “We were going to sell our house.”

“I’m 65 years old, a diabetic, AFib, heart disease — did you shorten my life now? I want to retire and enjoy it. How are we going to enjoy it? You burned me,” he continued. “Do I mow the grass? Can I plant tomatoes next summer? What can I do? I’m afraid to! And it’s in the air. Every day I cough — a little cough here, a little cough there — I’ve never had that.”

“Your derailment, it’s changed me now. It’s made me an angry man,” he added. “I don’t want to be like that.”

Shaw told East Palestine residents that Norfolk Southern is “absolutely focused on safety” and the company invests more than $1 billion each year toward maintenance and equipment. But he admitted that “clearly this is a situation where our safety culture and our investments didn’t prevent this accident.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and other officials promised never to gaslight the East Palestine community or paint a dishonestly “rosy” picture, but to relay information as they have it and do all they can to make the village whole again, such as continuing to test the municipal water supply.

“We’ve been very careful not to tell anybody it’s OK until we have evidence that it’s OK,” DeWine told residents. “There’s still cleanup to do. There’s still many things to do. So we’re not telling you everything is perfect. No one can tell you that. But as we go through and do one thing at a time and approach this in a methodical way, we’re going to tell you when things are clear.”

“It’s not rosy. We’re not saying everything is good,” the governor added, saying he’s relying on experts to give the green light.

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 also 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.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed a team to East Palestine on Feb. 18 to help support the ongoing operations there.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board shared an update on its ongoing probe into the Feb. 3 incident, saying “investigators have identified and examined the rail car that initiated the derailment.”

“Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment,” the NTSB said in an investigative update on Feb. 14. “The wheelset from the suspected railcar has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination. The suspected overheated wheel bearing has been collected and will be examined by engineers from the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, D.C.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, 4,588 cubic yards of contaminated soil have been removed from the immediate area of the derailment site, according to the Ohio governor’s office. That’s 88 cubic yards more than the previous night, or about enough to fill at least seven dump trucks, in addition to the roughly one-and-a-half Olympic pools’ worth already excavated.

So far, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has conducted indoor air testing at a total of 560 homes in East Palestine and no contaminants associated with the Feb. 3 derailment have been detected. Meanwhile, outdoor air monitoring remains ongoing with 20 air monitors in the area, which similarly have not yet detected any contaminants associated with the incident, according to DeWine’s office.

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. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Columbiana County General Health District has sampled 74 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.

Norfolk Southern announced Wednesday an “enhanced” plan for excavating the remaining contaminated soil at the derailment site. The cleanup crews, in coordination with the Ohio and U.S. EPAs, will now “temporarily remove the tracks so we can excavate the soil,” according to Shaw, the company’s president and CEO. Norfolk Southern said the “change comes in response to feedback” from East Palestine residents.

“Our original plan would have effectively and safely remediated the soil under our tracks,” Shaw said in a statement. “As I listened to community members over the past two weeks, they shared with me their concerns about that approach. I appreciate the direct feedback, and I am addressing it.”

“It is important to me that the members of this community have confidence in Norfolk Southern’s remediation efforts and that we are working closely with local, state, and federal agencies,” he added. “An important part of this plan is to listen to the concerns of the community and that’s a primary reason why we are going to enhance our plan.”

To date, 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. That includes 200,000 gallons collected on Tuesday alone and, as Norfolk Southern noted, the work is not over. The company has not said which chemicals were found in the material that was removed.

Meanwhile, the work to replace the train tracks in the derailment area “will begin immediately,” according to Norfolk Southern.

“Soil preparation will be followed by track removal along the first rail line, excavation of the soil, and then rebuilding the track,” the company said in a press release. “The same process will then follow with the second track. Trains will continue running at slower speeds on one track while the other is being excavated.”

Since the Feb. 3 derailment, Norfolk Southern said it has committed more than $5.6 million to the community of East Palestine, including $3.4 million in direct payments to affected residents.

U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced Tuesday 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.

During the CNN town hall on Wednesday night, several East Palestine residents reported suffering from ailments in the wake of the Feb. 3 derailment. Courtney Newman, a teacher and mother who lives one street away from the derailment site, said her son has been having bloody noses ever since they were allowed to return home. Josh Hickman, a longtime resident of the village, said he’s had a sore throat, irritated nose and headaches and that he went to the emergency room on Tuesday because “the amount of blood that came out” when he blew his nose “was alarming.”

Another resident, DJ Yokely, pointedly asked the U.S. EPA administrator: “If you were in our shoes, would you feel 100% safe, based on everything that you’ve heard long term and short term, to raise your kids in our community?”

“Yes, I would, based on the evidence that we have. I understand the skepticism as a father,” Regan replied. “But what I can tell you is what the science tells us and that these readings are indicating that there are safe levels.”

Moreover, resident Ben Ratner pressed the Ohio governor on whether he would commit to spending more than a few hours in East Palestine.

“Until the cleanup is done, you’ll stay with us, within the one mile?” Ratner asked.

“Yes,” DeWine responded. “I have been there three times.”

“For a few hours,” Ratner retorted. “Will you stay overnight for a period of time?”

“Yeah,” the governor replied.

“OK,” Ratner said. “I’ll hold you to that.”

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