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Ohio train derailment waste grows as EPA struggles to find disposal sites

Officials held a news conference on Feb. 26 to detail where chemicals from the East Palestine derailment will be taken for safe disposal. (Video: Reuters)
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Following a one-day pause for federal authorities to take over operations, officials announced Sunday they can continue removing contaminated waste from the site of the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio — a city with residents eager for this nightmare to be over.

Since the train derailed three weeks ago, Norfolk Southern has handled the disposal of contaminated materials. That changed Friday when the Environmental Protection Agency paused shipments to ensure all the sites receiving waste were certified by the EPA and that travel routes adhered to federal law, said Debra Shore, the EPA’s regional administrator.

“We owe it to East Palestine and residents nearby to move waste out of the community as quickly as possible,” Shore said at a Sunday news conference.

How a small-town train derailment erupted into a culture battle

She said liquid waste is destined for a site about 130 miles west in Vickery, Ohio, where it will be disposed of in an underground injection well. She said Norfolk Southern will move solid waste about 15 miles south of East Palestine to an incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio.

Authorities need to find operations that can handle the waste, and they have already been turned away from two facilities.

About 280 tons, or 20 truckloads, of solid waste had already been hauled away from the derailment site as of Saturday, according to an update from the office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R). Although 15 truckloads of contaminated soil had already been taken to a treatment and disposal facility in Michigan, the other five truckloads were returned to East Palestine. A facility in Texas accepted an unspecified amount of liquid waste, but DeWine’s office said that site will not be accepting any more.

As of Saturday, about 102,000 gallons of liquid waste and 4,500 cubic yards of solid waste were being stored at the site in East Palestine, not including the five truckloads returned to the village, according to the update from DeWine’s office. The cleanup process is only creating more solid and liquid waste that will require disposal sites.

“Everyone wants this contamination gone from the community,” Shore said Saturday. “They don’t want the worry, and they don’t want the smell.”

After images of a fiery train containing the toxic chemicals vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate circulated for weeks, the EPA responded to frustration from officials in Ohio and Pennsylvania by taking control of the response Tuesday.

Pa. governor accuses train company of mishandling Ohio derailment

Anne Vogel, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said Saturday that dirt and liquid was being hauled from the site, crews were using aeration techniques and pumps to clean waterways, and authorities were monitoring wells near the municipal well field.

“We will be able for years to come to know if there are any contaminants approaching the municipal well field,” she said.

Vogel said Sunday that workers had removed all the rail cars, except for the ones being held by the National Transportation Safety Board for its investigation. She said the cars’ removal allows crews to access more soil and install monitoring wells at the derailment site.

“We’re here; we’re not going anywhere,” she said.

Officials at the news conference Sunday said monitoring tests are not showing that there are any unsafe levels of toxic chemicals in the area.

Still, journalists peppered leaders with questions at the news conference about residents’ reports that they and their animals had suddenly fallen ill.

“We understand residents have a lot of questions,” said Thomas C. Sivak, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s regional administrator. “… Every disaster is different, and we want to hear from the impacted residents.”

The Ohio train derailment and chemical spill

The latest: 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.