Energy & Environment

Frustration builds over response to Ohio train derailment as officials urge patience

The cleanup process after the derailment and explosion of a train carrying hazardous chemicals in Ohio is sparking frustration among locals and environmentalists, who worry the state and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) response has been insufficient and confusing. 

On Feb. 3, a freight train owned by the Norfolk Southern Railway and carrying several cars of hazardous materials derailed in the town of East Palestine on the border with Pennsylvania. Two days later, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) ordered the town evacuated, and the following day, an emergency crew conducted a controlled burn to prevent a possible explosion.  

Locals and activists say they have since received mixed messages from both federal and state officials about the safety of the area.

Residents have been cleared to return the area by the federal EPA since Feb. 9, for instance, but the agency indicated in a letter to Norfolk Southern this week that hazardous chemicals remain present — and that more may be released.

“They’re talking out of both sides of their mouths,” activist and environmental whistleblower Erin Brockovich said of the EPA in a call with The Hill. “[They] clearly state in [their] first paragraph that it’s a known toxic substance that continues to be in the air, water and soil, but yet on the other hand, you tell everyone it’s safe to go back. So we’re still not getting full information yet.” 

“EPA has spent, or is considering spending, public funds to investigate and control releases of hazardous substances or potential releases of hazardous substances at the Site,” the agency wrote to Norfolk Southern in the letter. The Hill has reached out to the EPA for comment.

Substances identified in the release so far include: vinyl chloride, a flammable gas used in the production of plastics; butyl acrylate, a flammable liquid used for paints and sealants; and ethylhexyl acrylate, which is used in paint and plastic production.  

Additionally, the EPA’s state counterparts have said the town’s drinking water is safe, but multiple officials have seemed to undercut that assurance by advising residents to drink bottled water for the time being.

DeWine has maintained that officials continue to monitor the situation but has expressed confidence that the danger is minimal, saying on CNN’s “The Briefing Room” on Wednesday, “We told people in a certain area they needed to leave and outside that area, we never saw any really significant change in the air at all.”  

The governor, along with other officials, also recommended affected residents drink bottled water. Asked about the seeming mixed message, DeWine responded that officials remain optimistic but cannot be sure until testing is completed. “We’re testing [and] as we test, we’ll tell people exactly what we find,” he said.

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, DeWine’s office said municipal testing had returned “no detection of contaminants in raw water from the five wells that feed into East Palestine’s municipal water system.”

Gregg Brown, who lives outside the limits of East Palestine but works in the city and has children enrolled in its school district, said residents have been frustrated by the pace and transparency of the response so far. 

“It’s been very poor; I think that’s the nicest way to put it,” Brown told The Hill. “You have people testing the air and water and you’re getting air quality updates and saying this is what we found how many particles are in the air [but] not specifying what they’re finding in the air.” 

He also pointed to the delay in the public release of manifests from the derailed train, which took more than a week following the accident.  

Brown contrasted the response with the one that followed a similar accident in Paulsboro, N.J., in November 2012, which also led to the leakage of vinyl chloride. In that case, evacuation orders remained in place for longer than in East Palestine despite a smaller quantity of the chemical being spilled. 

Emily Wright, organizing development director at the organization River Valley Organizing, who lives miles from the derailment site in the town of Columbiana, suggests officials have so far focused on air quality because the risk level of other potential areas of contamination — such as the water — is less clear.

“When the governor tells you on a press conference that he would be drinking bottled water if it was him or his family, but then there’s no boil orders in effect, and no one’s been [formally] advised to get bottled water … that’s why all the focus is on the air,” Wright said. “It’s focused on air, but we’ve got all these other contamination points that are just starting to really show that’s why we need a federal emergency here”

River Valley Organizing is among several organizations that have petitioned DeWine to formally declare a state of emergency and request Federal Emergency Management Agency funds from the White House. 

But DeWine has so far pushed back on such requests.

“The president called me and said ‘anything you need.’ I will not hesitate to call him if we see a problem, but I’m not seeing it,” DeWine said in a press conference on Wednesday. DeWine’s office did not respond to a request for comment from The Hill on whether he would consider imposing a state of emergency. 

Brown speculated the nature of East Palestine itself likely contributed to officials appearing to have less of a sense of urgency than they might if the derailment had occurred in a major population center in the state, such as Cleveland or Columbus.

“The fact that it happened on the state line where it’s a lower income area … especially the area where the derailment itself [occurred], it’s not heavily populated, no injuries happened. … It’s not going to be an immediate ‘oh, what’s happened,’” he said. “When there are reports of people who are finding these fish dead, [the state] giving us kind of a runaround, it just really didn’t sit well with a lot of people, especially in the community.” 

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, meanwhile, defended both the state and the agency’s handling of the situation to CNN on Wednesday morning. Asked whether he believed it was irresponsible for DeWine to allow residents to return home before testing was complete, Regan said: “I don’t think it was irresponsible. I think that we have deployed lots of assets from the very beginning.” 

However, Regan echoed DeWine’s recommendation that residents drink bottled water in the meantime. “We’re also supporting the state in its water-quality monitoring, and I agree with the governor’s assessment,” he said. “Remain on bottled water until those tests are complete.” 

“We understand the concern, but rest assured, local, state and federal officials are devoting vast resources [and] responding very quickly to these concerns to ensure that communities are protected,” he said. 

“I think it’s awful that this community is scared [and] isn’t getting answers,” Brockovich said. “They’re worried about their soil, they’re worried about the water, they’re worried about the chemicals, they’re worried that they’ve been breathing it. … [They’re] worried for their animals, they’re worried for the future outcome, and nobody can seem to tell them anything.” 

Tags Erin Brockovich Mike DeWine

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