EPA Takes Over Ohio Train Derailment Cleanup, Multi-Agency Response Team Pledges ‘We Will Continue to Do What Needs to Be Done’

Amy Gamm
By Amy Gamm
February 22, 2023Ohio Train Derailment
EPA Takes Over Ohio Train Derailment Cleanup, Multi-Agency Response Team Pledges ‘We Will Continue to Do What Needs to Be Done’
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan (L) walks with his staff through East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 16, 2023. (Lucy Schaly/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

A bipartisan contingency consisting of the governors and local U.S. congressmen from both Ohio and Pennsylvania along with representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were on the ground on Tuesday in East Palestine, Ohio, providing an update on the Norfolk Southern train derailment incident.

Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), Rep. Chris Deluzio (D-Pa.), EPA Administrator Michael Regan, and other local officials and EPA representatives stood together as a unified presence at a news conference on Tuesday and reiterated to East Palestine residents that they were there for the long haul.

“We are making a public commitment again today,” DeWine said. “When all the TV cameras are gone, the reporters are gone, and the world turns to something else … we will stay here …. We will continue to do what needs to be done in the weeks and the months and the years as we go forward.”

The news conference came the same day that the EPA took control of the multi-agency emergency response effort and ordered the Norfolk Southern Corporation—the railroad company responsible for the tragic train derailment of Feb. 3—to handle and pay for all necessary contamination cleanup associated with the accident.

“For more than two weeks, our teams across all levels of government have worked hand-in-hand to respond to this emergency,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said at the news conference. “And as we transition from the emergency response phase, which the state has led with support from the federal government, to the cleanup phase, that level of coordination will continue to be essential to all of our successes.”

Regan outlined the responsibilities of each of the agencies involved moving forward.

“The state and local authorities will continue the water sampling efforts, and the EPA will continue indoor air screenings to residents within the evacuation zone,” he said, adding that the agency has screened over 550 homes to date.

And according to the legally binding order the EPA issued to Norfolk Southern on Tuesday, the railroad company must take on some hefty contributions.

Norfolk Southern must conduct all necessary actions associated with the cleanup, including the identification and remediation of all contaminated soil and water and reimbursing all costs associated with the EPAs cleaning services it is offering to local residents and businesses. The company must also attend any public meetings per EPA’s request and cover all costs incurred for any work performed under the order, including long-term medical care for affected residents.

“In no way, shape, or form will Norfolk Southern get off the hook for the mess that they created,” Regan said.

Previous to the EPA’s order, Norfolk Southern has been providing significant cleanup voluntarily. Now the company will be required to do so under a plan that the EPA approves and oversees.

If the company fails to complete any EPA-ordered actions, or the work is not done to the agency’s specifications, the agency will immediately step in, complete the work itself, and compel Norfolk Southern to reimburse them at triple the cost, the order stated.

Norfolk Southern’s Voluntary Contribution to the Emergency Response

According to a Norfolk Southern statement from Feb. 20, so far the railroad company has excavated an estimated 4,500 cubic yards of contaminated soil (or 15,000 pounds, according to Fox News) and 1.5 million gallons of contaminated water from the derailment site and plans to “safely in accordance with state and federal regulations” transport the material to landfills and disposal facilities.

Additionally, the company stated that it has decontaminated a “majority of the hazardous rail cars.” It also installed a series of pumps to reroute Sulphur Run around the derailment site and placed a dam in the affected portion of the run to protect water moving downstream.

Other than dealing with the environmental contamination, the company said it has spent more than $3.4 million in direct “inconvenient payments” and financial assistance to residents “impacted by the incident,” including those living outside of East Palestine in Beaver Creek, Pennsylvania, who were also evacuated.

However, Gov. Shapiro called Norfolk Southern’s response inadequate and incompetent.

“The combination of Norfolk Southern’s corporate greed, incompetence, and lack of care for our residents is absolutely unacceptable to me,” he said.

He went on to blast the company for its “failed management of the crisis” and its choice not to participate in the unified command, instead making the job of everyone involved harder by injecting “unnecessary risk and confusion into the process.”

Shapiro also noted that the company had hindered the emergency response efforts by providing “inaccurate information and conflicting modeling data.”

Opening of Health Clinic to Address Residents’ Medical Concerns

The news conference also came on the same day that Gov. DeWine announced the opening of a new health assessment clinic in East Palestine to address residents’ medical concerns related to the train derailment.

The health clinic will be run by the Ohio Department of Health in partnership with the Columbiana County Health Department, according to an Ohio Department of Health statement. Supporting agencies include both the Ohio and U.S. EPAs and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The clinic will have registered nurses and mental health specialists available during operation hours and a toxicologist on-site or accessible by phone.

During the news conference, DeWine said that residents of the neighboring town of Beaver Creek were welcome to take advantage of the clinic if needed.

“Last I looked, I think there were 38 people who had signed up,” DeWine said, adding that the state would continue to keep the clinic open “as long there’s a desire of people to show up and talk to the doctors.

According to CNN, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and HHS will arrive in East Palestine as early as later this week to further assess the train derailment’s public health impact on the community.

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