Federal officials vow to hold railroad responsible for toxic Ohio train derailment

Residents of a small Ohio town say they’re worried about the effects of dangerous chemicals released following a Norfolk Southern train accident.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaks during a press conference after inspecting the site of a train derailment of hazardous material in East Palestine, Ohio.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan at a press conference on Thursday after he inspected the site of a train derailment of hazardous material in East Palestine, Ohio. (Alan Freed/Reuters)
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Federal officials are promising residents of the small Ohio town of East Palestine that they will hold Norfolk Southern Railway accountable for a catastrophic train derailment that led to the release of toxic chemicals earlier this month.

Speaking at a Thursday afternoon press conference, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, also assured residents that government agencies would be with them to help for as long as possible.

“This incident has understandably shaken this community to its core, forcing families to temporarily leave their homes, worrying about their health and safety of their children and even questioning the information that they're receiving from all of us,” Regan said.

“The community has questions, and they deserve answers,” he continued. “I want the community to know that we hear you, we see you and that we will get to the bottom of this.”

This video screenshot released by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) shows the site of a derailed freight train in East Palestine, Ohio.
A video screenshot released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows the site of the derailed freight train. (NTSB via Xinhua)

Both Regan and Brown specifically promised to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the derailment and its fallout.

“I will be watching Norfolk Southern,” Brown said. “Watching them and letting them know I'm watching them is as important as anything I can do.”

The Feb. 3 derailment near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border spilled chemicals onto the surrounding area and waterways. That was followed three days later by Norfolk Southern's release and then burning of toxic chemicals from five of the derailed tanker cars in what it said was an effort to preempt a larger explosion.

One of the chemicals the company was most concerned about was vinyl chloride, a colorless gas and known carcinogen.

Beyond the immediate health and safety concerns for local residents, many questions remain unanswered about what caused the derailment and whether more stringent federal regulations could have prevented it.

At a press conference earlier in the week, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine called on Congress to examine why federal regulations did not require the railroad to notify officials in Ohio that it would be sending a train carrying hazardous materials through the state.

“Frankly, if this is true, and I'm told it’s true, this is absurd,” DeWine, a Republican, said.

At the press conference in East Palestine on Thursday, Brown and Johnson agreed with DeWine’s comments and said they were looking into whether a change in federal law might be necessary.

“That's another reason why I think it's really important that [Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg] come here and take a look at this himself,” Johnson said. Buttigieg, who did not issue a statement on the accident until 10 days after it had occurred, has been criticized by lawmakers and rail workers for his response.

A sign outside a flower shop in East Palestine reads: Please pray for E.P. and our future.
A sign outside a flower shop on Market Street in East Palestine. (Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)

Prior to the press conference, Regan and other officials spoke with residents as EPA officials conducted tests of the water and air at their homes.

“My community should not have been back before that was done,” one local woman told Regan, referring to the tests. “We've been let down.”

State officials said that while test results delivered earlier Thursday showed that the municipal water supply did not have signs of contamination, additional tests still needed to be completed on the numerous private wells supplying water to houses in the rural area. Regan said his agency was testing for all dangerous chemicals and so far had checked more than 500 private homes.

State officials have insisted since last week that it is safe for residents to return to their homes, but locals continue to report rashes, headaches and difficulty breathing, as well as an odd smell in the air.

Officials have said that while an estimated 3,500 fish were killed in the days after the accident, they’ve received no reports of illness in livestock. However, the local Humane Society chapter told the Salem News that more than 20 families had contacted it about sick, lethargic or dead animals, while others reported that the burning chemicals were having an effect on their foxes and chickens.

Regan said he was confident that the testing in the area was accurate but said residents who were feeling ill should report their symptoms.

“For those who are experiencing some sort of adverse health reaction, we ask that they please seek medical attention,” he said. “Also, we ask that they contact the local and state health agencies, because we want that information. We want to hear from people.”

At a press conference Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, DeWine encouraged locals to return to their homes, although he conceded that he’d take precautions if he were in their situation.

“Look, I think that I would be drinking the bottle of water, and I would be continuing to find out what the tests were showing as far as the air. I would be alert and concerned, but I think I would probably be back in my house,” DeWine said, adding of those affected, “I understand their skepticism, and I understand their anger. And, you know, if I lived in the community, I would be angry too. [Norfolk Southern] caused this problem — they’re going to be held accountable.”

Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine gives an update on the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine gives an update on the train derailment on Tuesday. (Patrick Orsagos/AP Photo)

Residents had expected more answers Wednesday night at a town hall, but before it was set to start, Norfolk Southern announced it would no longer be sending representatives, citing concerns about their safety. The town hall format had already been modified so residents could speak to different agency members one on one but would not be given the chance to publicly question company officials.

“They were in all the meetings, then today I got a phone call that they didn't feel safe,” Mayor Trent Conaway told residents. “I understand everybody. I'm just as frustrated as you are. ... I'm trying to get answers. I cannot force them to be here.”

While the cause of the derailment and the extent of the chemicals’ spread is still being investigated, Norfolk Southern’s response in the immediate aftermath is being criticized for allegedly prioritizing an expedient reopening of the railway over the well-being of area residents.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said the railroad was unwilling to explore alternative courses of action, “including some that may have kept the rail line closed longer but could have resulted in a safer overall approach for first responders, residents and the environment." That came after the EPA sent a letter to Norfolk Southern saying the company had failed to properly dispose of contaminated soil at the crash site in its effort to get the railway reopened.

In an email to Yahoo News, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said the company has “called the Governor to address his concerns,” and insisted that it is “committed to ensuring health and safety through ongoing environmental monitoring and support for their needs.”

“Norfolk Southern was on-scene immediately following the derailment and began working directly with local, state, and federal officials as they arrived at the unified command established in East Palestine by local officials, including those from Pennsylvania,” the emailed statement read. “We remain at the command post today working alongside those agencies to keep information flowing from our teams working at the site.”

Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train were still on fire after the day after the train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.
Portions of the train were still on fire on Feb. 4, the day after it derailed. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Norfolk Southern is already facing class action lawsuits over the derailment and the company’s response to it. One lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, accuses the company of recklessly releasing “chemical weapons” into the community in and around East Palestine when it decided to spill and then burn the vinyl chloride, sending phosgene gas and hydrogen chloride into the air.

The lawsuit notes that phosgene is a highly toxic, colorless gas that was used as a weapon in World War I and is banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons in war.

The lawsuit estimates that the train was carrying more than a million pounds of vinyl chloride. For context, the complaint states, the total amount of vinyl chloride discharged in the U.S. in 2021 was 428,522 pounds.

"In other words, Norfolk Southern discharged more cancer causing Vinyl Chloride into the environment in the course of a week than all industrial emitters combined did in the course of a year," alleges the complaint.

The response from federal agencies is also under scrutiny from the U.S. senators representing Ohio and Pennsylvania, who on Wednesday asked the EPA and the National Transportation Safety Board to provide details on their handling of the fallout of the derailment.

“While we are grateful no injuries or fatalities resulted directly from the derailment, we are deeply concerned about the release of hazardous materials into the air and groundwater in East Palestine and surrounding communities,” the senators wrote to the NTSB.

“Hundreds of families were forced to flee their homes, and they are now rightfully concerned about long-term health risks due to the Norfolk Southern train derailment. No American family should be forced to face the horror of fleeing their homes because hazardous materials have spilled or caught fire in their community.”