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EPA to take control of Ohio derailment response

Under binding order, EPA will require Norfolk Southern to remediate toxic site in East Palestine

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan with his staff in East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday. (Lucy Schaly/AP)
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EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — The Environmental Protection Agency, under pressure to respond more forcefully to the train derailment that released toxic chemicals here, will take control of the response to the disaster and will require rail company Norfolk Southern to clean up the contamination, the agency’s head said Tuesday.

With the saga now in its third week, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Norfolk Southern will be required to remediate the area under a plan approved by the federal agency rather than doing the voluntary cleanup its CEO had previously pledged.

The move came after frustration from both residents and officials in Ohio and Pennsylvania with the rail company and criticism of the Biden administration’s response to the Feb. 3 crash from some lawmakers. In the two weeks since evacuated residents returned to their homes, national attention on East Palestine has intensified and residents have said they were left with questions about potential contamination and cleanup.

While the move means the EPA can penalize the rail company if it doesn’t comply, it was not yet clear how much comfort the announcement would bring East Palestine’s 4,700 residents, who remain worried about their health and homes.

“I recognize that no matter how much data we collect or provide, it will not be enough to completely reassure everybody,” Regan said at a news conference in East Palestine. “But we’re going to work together day by day for as long as it takes to make sure that this community feels at home once again.”

On Feb. 21, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for all necessary cleanup of a toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. (Video: Reuters)

Norfolk Southern will have to pay for the remediation, under penalty of fines for violations. The company must also pay for cleaning services that the agency will offer to residents and businesses, participate in public meetings and share information publicly, according to the EPA.

Also Tuesday, a federal team opened a health clinic for East Palestine residents, some of whom have complained of headaches, nausea and dizziness since returning to their homes. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said his department would begin a round of inspections on train routes used for transporting hazardous materials and called for the rail industry to implement new safety measures.

In addition, Pennsylvania’s environmental agency has made a criminal referral against Norfolk Southern to the state attorney general, said Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) of Pennsylvania, where residents over the Ohio border were also affected by the toxic emissions. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said his state attorney general planned to “take the appropriate action.”

Before Ohio derailment, Norfolk Southern lobbied against safety rules

The announcements came on the heels of a chaotic week during which officials repeatedly told the public that tests showed the air and water were safe, while residents complained of chemical odors and health symptoms.

The disaster has led to misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating online, drawing attention from figures such as environmental activist Erin Brockovich and former president Donald Trump, who both planned visits to East Palestine this week. Regan’s appearance in East Palestine — during which he, DeWine and others drank tap water at a resident’s home — was his second visit to the town in less than a week.

Summer Magness, 46, said her family of four has experienced watery eyes and lingering coughs since the derailment. She watched the news conference from her home in East Palestine and said she was “optimistic” about the EPA’s takeover of the cleanup.

“I’m going to be watching it carefully, though,” Magness said. “I hope they mean it when they say they are in it for the long haul.”

Resident John Kennedy also tuned in to the briefing. Afterward, he said he didn’t know whether he believed officials’ promises that East Palestine wouldn’t be left with a mess, but said he’s been seeing the EPA at work all around town.

“I don’t know what more the EPA can do,” said Kennedy, 57.

The full effect of the derailment and chemical release is not yet known. In addition to the contaminated soil and water being removed, chemicals also leaked into local waterways and went into the air. Experts have said it will take time to determine whether there is lasting contamination in soil and water.

In announcing the plan, EPA officials did not cite any specific mismanagement by Norfolk Southern, whose leaders had promised to clean up the mess. Regan said the agency would “push them to do it right and to do it as quickly as possible, and do it as transparently as possible.”

Shapiro, however, who has accused Norfolk Southern of botching the initial emergency response by giving officials inaccurate information and not participating in unified command, said he thought the rail company “needed to be compelled to act.”

“The combination of Norfolk Southern’s corporate greed, incompetence and lack of care for our residents is absolutely unacceptable to me,” he said at the briefing. “Today is another step toward accountability.”

In addition, DeWine urged Congress to hold hearings and change rules on rail safety that allowed the Norfolk Southern train to pass through without being classified as carrying high hazardous materials. Buttigieg has also called for Congress to raise the $225,455 maximum fine for violations of railroad safety rules.

After the derailment, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said the company would stay in East Palestine “for as long as needed,” and the company offered some assistance to residents. On Tuesday, a company spokesman said Norfolk Southern would work with regulators and elected officials on railroad safety improvements.

“We recognize that we have a responsibility, and we have committed to doing what’s right for the residents of East Palestine. We have been paying for the clean-up activities to date and will continue to do so,” spokesman Connor Spielmaker said in a statement after the EPA’s announcement.

Norfolk Southern contractors and state and local agencies have already carried out some emergency cleanup: Crews have been digging up a 1,000-foot swath around the tracks and pumping out water, state officials said last week, and Norfolk Southern said Monday at least 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil and 1.1 million gallons of tainted water had been removed.

The EPA said its new step marked a shift from the emergency response to a longer-term cleanup. Its order will be made under CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, a 1980 law that allows the federal government to take on cleanup of what are commonly known as Superfund sites.

Here’s what the derailed Ohio train was carrying — and what was burned

The EPA’s takeover of authority “certainly seems warranted,” said Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA official and executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.

“Short-term work can sometimes involve removal of contaminants or stabilization of a site, long-term cleanup can include, for example, decontamination of polluted groundwater, which can take more time,” he told The Washington Post via email. “EPA has lots of history responding to spills and other accidental releases nationwide, so can bring that expertise to bear.”

The Biden administration’s actions Tuesday were its latest in the face of allegations that it has been slow to respond, despite federal employees being on the ground within hours of the derailment. DeWine said Tuesday that both state environmental regulators and the EPA were on the scene quickly; Regan called the response before Tuesday “very effective.”

Residents in East Palestine, Ohio were picking up bottled water on Friday and wondering about lasting health effects from a train derailment two weeks ago. (Video: Joyce Koh, Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Referencing both the political criticism and conspiracy theories that have circulated since the derailment, Shapiro said the elected officials involved have “put any kind of partisan politics aside,” adding, “This is not a place for conspiracy theories or political games.”

The frustrations of the past several days seemed to have worn on East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway. On Monday, he was quoted as criticizing President Biden for visiting wartime Ukraine — to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of that country — rather than coming to Ohio. On Tuesday, he walked back the comments, saying Biden would be welcome in the town — and that residents did not want to be “political pawns.”

“We just want to go back to living our lives the way they were,” the mayor said.

Scott Dance, Ian Duncan and Luz Lazo contributed to this report.

The Ohio train derailment and chemical spill

The latest: DOJ is also suing Norfolk Southern over the toxic train derailment. Senators questioned Norfolk Southern’s CEO on rail safety records as Ohio is suing the freight company. In February, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the Ohio train derailment.

What are the health risks of the chemical spill? One toxic gas, vinyl chloride, was burned after the derailment, sending various toxins and chemicals into the air. The EPA is handling the disaster response.

The politics: Amid a partisan divide over the disaster response, former president Donald Trump and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the derailment site.

Who is impacted? The Biden administration is taking heat for not doing enough to help, while Ohio residents are angry after Norfolk Southern backed out of a town hall addressing the response. The derailment also killed more than 43,000 aquatic animals in the area. Here’s what to know about the derailment’s toxic plume.