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EPA takes charge of cleanup from toxic Ohio train derailment

Michael Regan speaking from a lectern, with an Environmental Protection Agency logo featuring a blue and green flower graphic
EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan announced at a news conference Tuesday in East Palestine, Ohio, that the agency will hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the cleanup costs from the railway’s Feb. 3 freight train derailment.
(Matt Freed / Associated Press)
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Norfolk Southern on Tuesday to pay for the cleanup of the East Palestine, Ohio, train wreck and chemical release as federal regulators took charge of long-term recovery efforts and promised worried residents they won’t be forgotten.

Speaking to reporters near the derailment site, Norfolk Southern’s chief executive promised to undertake necessary steps to ensure the long-term health of the community and become a “safer railroad.”

The EPA used its authority under the federal Superfund law to order Norfolk Southern to take all available measures to clean up contaminated air and water, and also said the company would be required to reimburse the federal government for a new program to provide cleaning services for affected residents and businesses in the area near the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line.

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“Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess that they created and the trauma that they inflicted on this community,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan vowed at a news conference in East Palestine. “I know this order cannot undo the nightmare that families in this town have been living with, but it will begin to deliver much-needed justice for the pain that Norfolk Southern has caused.”

He warned that if Norfolk Southern fails to comply, the agency will perform the work itself and seek triple damages from the company.

The EPA planned to release more details on the cleanup program for residents and businesses, which it said would “provide an additional layer of reassurance.”

The agency said its order marked the end of the emergency phase of the Feb. 3 derailment and the start of long-term remediation.

A train derailment in Ohio, followed by the burning of hazardous chemicals, has people in the region concerned about smoke, drinking water and pets.

Feb. 15, 2023

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw reiterated promises to restore the site and invest in the community.

“From Day One, I’ve made the commitment that Norfolk Southern is going to remediate the site, we’re going to do continuous long-term air and water monitoring, we’re going to help the residents of this community recover, and we’re going to invest in the long-term health of this community. And we’re going to make Norfolk Southern a safer railroad,” he told reporters.

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Jeff Zalick, who lives with his 100-year-old mother just blocks from the derailment site, said he’s waiting for their home to be cleaned before moving back. He said there’s still a chemical smell inside, though it’s not nearly as bad as it was a week ago.

The walls need scrubbing, and he wants air purifiers installed before allowing his mother back.

“I just want to make sure she’s safe,” Zalick said. “She’s ready to come home. She cries every day.”

In a tweet sent after the EPA announcement, President Biden said the Trump administration and other elected officials had hampered efforts to improve rail safety.

“We’ll continue to hold rail companies accountable when they fail to put safety first. But first, we’ve got Norfolk Southern’s mess to clean,” he said. “I want affected residents to know that we’ve got your back.”

Residents of an Ohio village near where a freight train derailed want to know whether they are safe from toxic chemicals that spilled or were burned off.

Feb. 16, 2023

The EPA’s move to compel Norfolk Southern to clean up came nearly three weeks after more than three dozen freight cars — including 11 carrying hazardous materials — derailed on the outskirts of East Palestine near the Pennsylvania state line, prompting an evacuation as fears grew about a potential explosion of smoldering wreckage.

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Officials seeking to avoid an uncontrolled blast intentionally released and burned toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars, sending flames and black smoke high into the sky. That left people questioning the potential health effects even as authorities maintained they were doing their best to protect people.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine assured residents they will not be left to handle the aftermath on their own once public attention turns elsewhere.

“We understand that it’s not just about today, it’s not just about two weeks from now,” he said Tuesday. “People have long-term concerns, and we’re going to do everything we can to stay at this.”

About 4,600 yards of contaminated soil and 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water had already been removed, DeWine said. But he added that Norfolk Southern had failed to address the contaminated soil underneath its tracks before repairing them and running freight again, and said the company would have to take the tracks back up and remove the affected soil.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro blasted Norfolk Southern on Tuesday over what he called its “failed management of this crisis,” saying the company had chosen not to take part in a unified incident command, and had provided inaccurate information and conflicting modeling data.

“The combination of Norfolk Southern’s corporate greed, incompetence and lack of concern for our residents is absolutely unacceptable,” said Shapiro, speaking at the news conference with Regan, DeWine and other officials.

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Shapiro said his administration had made a criminal referral of Norfolk Southern to the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office. DeWine said Ohio’s attorney general had also launched an investigation.

The EPA said it had tested indoor air quality at 550 homes so far, with outside air being monitored via aircraft, mobile vans and stationary instruments.

But Regan said he was not sure whether his agency had tested for dioxin, a carcinogen, as some lawmakers and advocates have requested.

Under the so-called Superfund law, the EPA has authority to direct those responsible for contamination or hazardous waste to clean it up. The agency can fine the railway up to $70,000 a day if the work is not completed — or can do the work itself and bill Norfolk Southern triple its costs.

Separately, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced a package of changes Tuesday, calling on railroad operators to take immediate steps to improve safety, such as accelerating the planned upgrade of tank cars.

Associated Press writer Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.

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