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Residents near toxic train wreck question water safety

Almost two weeks after a Norfolk Southern train derailed with a number of hazardous chemicals aboard, officials say residents can return to nearby homes.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (CN) — Ohio's attorney general advised the railroad behind a massive chemical spill that his office is considering legal action against it, as officials advise residents to avoid tap water and warn that the spill area near the northeast Ohio town of East Palestine could become a "superfund" site.

The Environmental Protection Agency is continuing to screen homes near East Palestine for dangerous chemicals spilled in a train derailment near the town on February 3, and state officials are advising residents to drink bottled water until they can confirm that the local water supply is potable. 

In a statement issued Tuesday, EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore said that her agency's air monitoring had not detected any toxin levels "of health concern" attributable to the train derailment since the end of a multi-day controlled burn on February 8. "EPA has been boots-on-the-ground, leading robust air-quality testing," Shore said.

Shore was more reserved in her comments on potential water pollution, saying that her agency was "working closely" with Ohio's own EPA to determine the spill's impacts through sampling along the Ohio river and particularly at water-treatment intake points.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost advised the railroad on Wednesday that his office is considering taking action against it. The pollution, he said in a letter to the company, "created a nuisance, damage to natural resources and caused environmental harm."

Several lawsuits have already been filed against the railroad by residents and business owners in East Palestine.

A Norfolk Southern Railway train derailed in East Palestine just before 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Feb. 3. Twenty of the train’s 150 cars were listed as carrying hazardous materials, and 38 were involved in the derailment. First responders detected a release of vinyl chloride, a highly toxic gas used in the creation of polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC. By Feb. 5, officials had issued evacuation orders to hundreds of nearby residents and were warning anyone who had not already left to evacuate immediately. 

The following day, officials began a controlled burn in an effort to neutralize some of the chemicals. The fire was extinguished on February 8, and residents were told they could return to their homes.

The EPA reported Wednesday that it had screened the air quality of 459 homes since the disaster and sampled 21 drinking water wells. As of February 13, when it had screened some 291 homes, the agency reported that it had not detected any vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride in those homes. 

At a town hall meeting held Wednesday afternoon by a collection of law firms, East Palestine residents expressed skepticism of these claims. "We are very concerned. We are afraid to drink the water — we are just afraid of what's going on here in town," one resident told Pittsburgh television station WTAE at the meeting. "I know of other places that things have happened like this, and I know the results of it."

Another man, John Pruitt, told Cleveland station WKYC that he worried about what will happen when it rains. "I'm sure it's going to take a long time to leach down into the groundwater, and I don't know what'll happen then," he said.

Norfolk Southern did not send representatives to the meeting. "Unfortunately, after consulting with community leaders, we have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around the event," the railway said in a statement, "stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties."

The EPA warned Norfolk Southern in a letter Friday that the derailment site may become a "superfund" site under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, and that the railway may be responsible for cleanup costs. The railroad announced Tuesday that it would also be creating a $1 million fund for East Palestine residents during remediation work.

Norfolk Southern provided a report to the EPA listing the affected cars’ contents. Five of the derailed cars contained vinyl chloride, but the report claimed that none of those five leaked. Of the cars containing potentially harmful substances, only two were breached, the company said: one contained butyl acrylate and the other ethylhexyl acrylate. Both have a number of industrial uses, including the production of adhesives. A car carrying isobutylene and two carrying benzene were damaged by fire, but not breached, and the status of one car carrying ethylene glycol monobutyl ether was listed as “unknown” when the document was posted on Feb. 12. 

That matched the chemicals the EPA listed in its superfund letter, though the agency noted that the list was not necessarily complete.

Vinyl chloride is associated with increased risk of cancer, particularly liver cancer, when inhaled. Officials warned residents that burning the chemical would also emit phosgene and hydrogen chloride, both of which are also toxic at high doses. Phosgene was also used as a chemical weapon during World War I. 

The question of water contamination, meanwhile, has yielded mixed messages from regulators. While the EPA has recommended — and Norfolk Southern has provided — bottled water to locals, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s surface water head head Tiffany Kavalec assured reporters on Tuesday that contaminants flowing down the Ohio River were not expected to taint drinking water. A massive die-off of about 3,500 fish in the river has slowed to a stop, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Mary Mertz said, noting that this indicated no new contamination was flowing into the river. 

Federal investigators have said that the derailment itself was caused by a mechanical issue with a rail car axle. In a security-camera video released Feb. 10 and taken at an equipment plant 20 miles from the derailment site in nearby Salem, Ohio, sparks and flames can be seen underneath one of the cars as it passes by. Another security video, taken a mile later, shows an alarm indicating excessive heat on one of the axles. The National Transportation Safety Board indicated that it had received the videos, along with data from the train itself, and would release preliminary findings within 30 days. 

The 2022–2023 winter has been a rocky period for the rail industry, and rail-shipped chemicals in particular. Labor disputes nearly led to a rail strike in December until President Joe Biden signed a bill making such a strike illegal. An agreement brokered by the White House would give workers a significant pay increase, a paid day off and a promise that they could attend medical appointments without being penalized, but four of the affected unions had held out on signing an agreement until they could secure paid sick leave for their workers. The strike threat became plausible enough that railroads stopped accepting chemical shipments for a week in September. 

The derailment is just the second major train U.S. derailment of the decade. An Amtrak train derailed in Missouri in 2022, killing four and injuring up to 150. The United States’ last major rail-related chemical leak was in 2005, when two Norfolk Southern trains collided near Graniteville, South Carolina, and spilled chlorine gas, sodium hydroxide and cresol. Nine people died as a result of the accident, and at least 250 were treated for chlorine exposure. The East Palestine derailment, by contrast, had no injuries at the site of the crash.

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