(CN) — The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it will take over the response to the train derailment disaster near East Palestine, Ohio, that set hazardous chemicals on fire and sent plumes of black smoke into the air.
Starting Thursday, Norfolk Southern Railway’s so-far voluntary cleanup of the toxic wreck site becomes mandatory and governed by an EPA-approved plan.
The agency issued an order to the rail company requiring it to develop and present plans to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water, reimburse the EPA for cleaning services it will offer to East Palestine residents and businesses, post certain information about the derailment and cleanup efforts online, and cover the agency’s costs for cleanup-related work.
The railway will also be required to participate in “community involvement activities” at the EPA's request, provide weekly reports on its progress until the agency tells it otherwise, and keep regulators in the loop on sampling results and disposal locations for cleaned-up chemicals.
The order is set to go into effect Thursday, and gives Norfolk Southern a week to respond with its intent to comply and any defenses it may assert.
In a statement issued with the order, the EPA said that it “marks the transition of the multi-agency response from its ‘emergency phase’ to a longer-term remediation phase.” The agency said it will establish a unified command structure to coordinate the cleanup efforts of Norfolk Southern, Ohio and Pennsylvania environmental regulators, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services.
“The Norfolk Southern train derailment has upended the lives of East Palestine families, and EPA’s order will ensure the company is held accountable,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in the statement. “Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they’ve inflected on this community.”
Regan visited the site late last week to discuss cleanup efforts. He advised, among other things, that municipal drinking water was safe to drink, and asked that residents “trust the government” with the acknowledgement that doing so was “hard.”
The Feb. 3 derailment of a 149-car train in the village near the Pennsylvania border started a fire and spurred a brief evacuation of homes and businesses. While the EPA has told residents that they can return home after a controlled burn and extensive air-quality testing, concern has remained high over the possibility that the derailment has contaminated air and water in the area and downstream on the Ohio River.
Norfolk Southern listed 20 of the derailed cars as carrying hazardous materials, including five carrying vinyl chloride, a hazardous gas used to produce certain plastic and vinyl products. Much of that was broken down into the hazardous, but faster-dispersing, gases hydrogen chloride and phosgene in a “vent and burn” meant to prevent an uncontrolled explosion near the crash site.
Derailed cars also carried benzene, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate and isobutylene. All six chemicals are known human carcinogens, and several have other detrimental effects when breathed or consumed, especially chronically.
East Palestinians have filed multiple class actions against Norfolk Southern over the incident. The company’s CEO made his own statement on Sunday, telling the village that “we will not walk away” and pointing to the $1 million community support fund the company established “as a down payment on our commitment to help rebuild.”
Norfolk Southern is the fifth-largest railway in North America by revenue, having netted $11.14 billion in 2021. It trailed competitors BNSF and Union Pacific by a substantial margin, but outpaced regional railways like the Canadian Pacific Railway and Kansas City Southern by several billion dollars.
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