(CN) — Almost two weeks after a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in the Ohio town of East Palestine, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan visited the area Thursday afternoon to deliver remarks on the state of cleanup efforts.
Regan – alongside Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel, Democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown and Republican Congressman Bill Johnson – told reporters that multiple government agencies at the state and federal level were working to ensure local residents were safe and that Norfolk Southern would be held accountable for the disaster.
"EPA will exercise our oversight and our enforcement authority under the law to be sure we are getting the results the community deserves," Regan said.
Vogel also stated that while residents who evacuated should have their homes tested by the state EPA before moving back in, local air and East Palestine municipal groundwater wells are both safe. Testing in private wells, she said, depends on those well owners contacting the state EPA.
"We are not showing any evidence of any contaminants... the municipal water wells are safe to drink," Vogel said.
Many reporters at the press conference remained skeptical of the speakers' assurances. Several raised the issue that the gases released from the train cars included not only the initially reported vinyl chloride, but also benzene and phosgene, an organic compound used as a chemical weapon during World War I.
Others also noted that chemical plumes had entered the Ohio River, which provides drinking water to over 5 million people, while East Palestine residents and even those in towns miles away are still complaining of symptoms ranging from headaches to bloody phlegm and stool. Still another pointed out that a state of emergency has not yet been declared for Ohio.
Earlier on Thursday, Brown called on Republican Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to declare a state of emergency, which would allow the state to receive a greater amount of federal support, but DeWine has yet to do so.
In a Thursday tweet, DeWine stated he had been advised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that Ohio "is not eligible for assistance at this time."
Brown also said he was in contact with Democratic President Joe Biden, who reportedly told the senator the state should get "whatever it needs."
The president himself has yet to address the disaster publicly. At the time of Thursday's press conference, Biden was delivering a speech on three unidentified objects the U.S. military shot down over the past week. None of them, Biden said, showed any connection to alleged aerial surveillance efforts by China.
Representatives from Norfolk Southern did not appear at Thursday's press conference. Its spokespeople were also absent from an East Palestine town meeting on Wednesday night which they were scheduled to attend. The company pulled out of the meeting at the last minute, citing concerns of "the growing physical threat" to its employees in the town.
Norfolk Southern, which announced over $10 billion in stock buybacks last year and is currently valued at over $54 billion, announced Tuesday that it was establishing a fund of only $1.2 million to aid the nearly 900 families that were forced to evacuate in the wake of the derailment. The payments, Brown said, would work out to between $1,000 and $2,000 per family.
Addressing the reporters' skepticism, Regan said he would be comfortable allowing his children to move back into a home in East Palestine, provided its indoor air and water supply had been thoroughly tested. The administrator demurred, though, when pressed on whether the EPA was also testing the outdoor surfaces of homes and whether its tests were sufficient to detect all the chemicals suspected of being released from the derailment.
"I trust the science, I trust the methodology this state is using," Regan said.
Vogel echoed his sentiment, saying that this was only the start of a testing and cleanup process that would likely take weeks, if not months.
"Remember that this is the emergency phase... the mediation phase comes next, and it will take as long as it needs," she said.
The disaster has sparked a new call for increased regulation of the rail industry, including by Brown and Johnson on Thursday. Over 1,000 train derailments occur in the U.S. every year, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, and the amount of money companies like Norfolk Southern buy back in stock often far exceeds the investments they make in rail maintenance and safety.
According to U.S. Surface Transportation Board Chairman Martin Oberman, the five largest railway companies in the U.S. - including Norfolk Southern - derived over $191 billion in dividends and stock buybacks between 2010 and 2021, while only making about $138 billion in infrastructure investments during the same period.
A Feb. 8 report by the investigative journalism outlet The Lever also revealed that in 2018, the American Association of Railroads, a lobbying group of which Norfolk Southern is a dues-paying member, successfully pushed the Trump administration to strip an existing safety regulation. Per a rule established under former President Barack Obama in 2014, trains carrying crude oil and other “high-hazard” materials were required to be equipped with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, which can stop a train up to 60% faster than conventional brakes. The rule was repealed under former President Donald Trump and has yet to be reinstated under the Biden administration.
The derailment also sits in the shadow of Congress intervening in intense negotiations between rail worker unions and rail companies only several months ago. Fearing a strike during the height of the holiday season, in late November Congress, under Biden's direction, forced four of the unions to accept contracts that their members had previously rejected.
Central to the workers' demands were safer working conditions and paid short-term sick days, which Congress' imposed deal did not include.
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