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EPA orders a ‘pause’ on removal of derailment contaminated waste

Flames and plumes of black smoke rise into the sky after a freight train derailed in eastern Ohio.
Flames and plumes of black smoke rise into the sky after a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed earlier this month in East Palestine, Ohio.
(Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)
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Federal environmental authorities have ordered a temporary halt in the shipment of contaminated waste from the site of a fiery train derailment earlier this month in eastern Ohio near the Pennsylvania state line.

Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore of the Environmental Protection Agency said Saturday that the agency ordered Norfolk Southern to “pause” shipments from the site of the Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine but vowed that removal of the material would resume “very soon.”

“Everyone wants this contamination gone from the community. They don’t want the worry, and they don’t want the smell, and we owe it to the people of East Palestine to move it out of the community as quickly as possible,” Shore said.

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A winter storm carving a path through Southern California slackened Saturday, leaving sleet, snow and record-setting rain in its wake.

Feb. 26, 2023

Until Friday, Shore said, the rail company had been solely responsible for the disposal of the waste and supplied Ohio environmental officials with a list of selected and utilized disposal sites. Going forward, disposal plans including locations and transportation routes for contaminated waste will be subject to EPA review and approval, she said.

“EPA will ensure that all waste is disposed of in a safe and lawful manner at EPA-certified facilities to prevent further release of hazardous substances and impacts to communities,” Shore said. She said officials had heard concerns from residents and others in a number of states and were reviewing “the transport of some of this waste over long distances and finding the appropriate permitted and certified sites to take the waste.”

No one was injured when 38 Norfolk Southern cars derailed in a fiery, mangled mess on the outskirts of town, but as fears grew about a potential explosion due to hazardous chemicals in five of the rail cars, officials evacuated the area. They later opted to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from the tanker cars, sending flames and black smoke billowing into the sky again.

Shore said the EPA was not involved in the decision to do the controlled burn, but she called it a “well-founded” decision by local and state officials based on the information they had at the time “to deal with a highly explosive toxic chemical.”

Federal and state officials have repeatedly said it’s safe for evacuated residents to return to the area and that air testing in the town and inside hundreds of homes hasn’t detected any concerning levels of contaminants from the fires or burned chemicals. The state says the local municipal drinking water system is safe, and bottled water is available while testing is conducted for those with private wells.

Despite those assurances and a bevy of news conferences and visits from politicians, many residents still express a sense of mistrust or have lingering questions about what they have been exposed to and how it will affect the future of their families and their communities.

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