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The EPA steps in to take over the East Palestine train derailment cleanup

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaks during a news conference in East Palestine, Ohio, on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.
Matt Freed
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaks during a news conference in East Palestine, Ohio, on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023.

Updated February 21, 2023 at 9:12 PM ET

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it would take control of the cleanup of a Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio earlier this month that released hazardous chemicals into the environment.

Crews are still working to respond to the freight disaster in East Palestine as community members worry about possible adverse health effects from the toxic materials released when dozens of cars derailed after a likely mechanical failure.

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Under the legally binding order, Norfolk Southern must identify and clean up contaminated soil and water resources, pay for the costs of work performed by the EPA and reimburse the agency for additional cleaning services offered to residents and businesses.

The agency's move comes as the emergency response effort has now morphed into an environmental cleanup that is the responsibility of the railroad, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said during a Tuesday press conference.

"Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess that they created and the trauma that they inflicted," Regan said. "In no way, shape or form will Norfolk Southern get off the hook for the mess that they created."

The company will also have to attend and participate in public meetings requested by the EPA, he said.

If Norfolk Southern fails to act, Regan said, the EPA can do the work itself and recoup triple the cost of any remediation efforts.

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In statement to NPR on Tuesday, Norfolk Southern said it has already been paying for the cleanup in East Palestine and will continue to do so.

"We recognize that we have a responsibility, and we have committed to doing what's right for the residents of East Palestine," the railroad said. "We are committed to thoroughly and safely cleaning the site, and we are reimbursing residents for the disruption this has caused in their lives."

The company has committed more than $6 million to date in East Palestine, it said, including $3.8 million in direct financial assistance to families impacted by the accident.

Norfolk Southern also vowed to work with regulators and elected officials to improve railroad safety in light of the crash.

In an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, CEO Alan Shaw responded to criticism from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, saying the company invests more than $1 billion a year in "science-based" safety solutions, including maintaining tracks, equipment and technology.

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"It's pretty clear that our safety culture and our investments in safety didn't prevent this accident," Shaw said. "We need to take a look at this and see what we can do differently and what we can do better."

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro praised the EPA for taking charge of the cleanup from the crash, which took place less than a mile from the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

"It is my view that Norfolk Southern wasn't going to do this out of the goodness of their own heart. There's not a lot of goodness in there," Shapiro said. "They needed to be compelled to act."

Hazardous chemicals were in 11 derailed train cars

On Feb. 3, about three dozen Norfolk Southern freight cars derailed near East Palestine, a town of roughly 4,800. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have indicated that the derailment was likely caused by a wheel bearing failure; a preliminary report is expected next week.

Shaw declined to comment in the CNBC interview on potential causes, citing the investigation. He also said Norfolk Southern is fully cooperating with the NTSB and the Federal Railroad Administration to determine the cause.

Eleven of the derailed cars were carrying hazardous chemicals such as butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride, which is used to make the hard plastic resin PVC.

Authorities responding to the crash grew concerned that cars carrying vinyl chloride were at risk of a catastrophic explosion. Officials ultimately evacuated the area to conduct a "controlled explosion" instead, sending a black plume of smoke into the sky above the small town.

The evacuation order was lifted on Feb. 8. Since then, some residents in the area have complained of health problems, such as headaches and nausea, and many have expressed concerns over possible contamination of the air and water supply.

The EPA says East Palestine's air quality and municipal water supply quality is normal

The derailment caused the release of hazardous chemicals into the air and surface water. But more recent air monitoring and water sample tests have shown no concerns with air quality or water quality in East Palestine's municipal water supply, the EPA said Monday. The agency added that it would publish more detailed data "as it becomes available."

Ohio state officials have opened a health clinic in East Palestine for residents who believe they may have health issues as a result of the derailment, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said.

"This is really in response to the concerns that we have heard, that people want to be able to go someplace and get some answers about any kind of medical problems that they believe that they are, in fact, having," he said.

DeWine added that the remediation effort near the crash site was ongoing. About 4,600 cubic yards of soil and 1.1 million gallons contaminated water have been removed so far.

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Joe Hernandez
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