The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered Norfolk Southern to conduct and pay for the cleanup of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, as the railroad company faces widespread criticism for releasing and burning toxic chemicals in recent weeks.
The EPA announced on Tuesday that Norfolk Southern must identify contaminated soil and water in East Palestine and clean it up, a process which the agency says it will be overseeing. The federal agency is also demanding that the company fund an EPA program that will provide cleaning services to residents and businesses, and that it attend public meetings about the disaster.
If the company fails to comply, the agency will conduct the cleanup itself, the EPA said, and seek to order the company to pay triple the cost of the cleanup.
“The Norfolk Southern train derailment has upended the lives of East Palestine families, and EPA’s order will ensure the company is held accountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of this community,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a statement.
The announcement from the EPA comes weeks after the derailment on February 3, amid an uproar over the crash. Outrage has been mounting in recent weeks, with little attention from corporate news outlets immediately following the crash and Norfolk Southern dodging a public hearing about the crash last week.
Residents of East Palestine have been demanding transparency from regulators and the $51 billion company after a 150-car train derailed earlier this month. After the crash, the company began burning five cars containing vinyl chloride — a colorless gas used in plastic production that, when inhaled, can increase the risks of developing liver, brain and lung cancers, as well as lymphoma and leukemia, according to the National Institutes of Health. No deaths have been reported, but local wildlife has been dying by the thousands and residents have reported their pets dying suddenly.
The lack of response from federal officials and the company until recent days has raised concerns that any cleanup effort — especially one conducted by a company attempting to avoid accountability for the crash — may not be sufficient to protect residents.
There has already been scrutiny over Norfolk Southern and environmental officials’ claims over pollutants in the air, soil and water. Initial testing of municipal water in East Palestine, ordered by the company, found no indication of risk in the water — a report cited by the Ohio EPA and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine in statements informing residents that the water was drinkable. But, as HuffPost uncovered last week, experts who examined the report found that its results were dubious at best, as the samples of the water did not meet protocol.
And, while state and federal officials have maintained that the air in the town is safe to breathe and contaminants are within legal limits, residents have said that there is a lingering stench in the air and that they have experienced a burning sensation in their eyes and throats. Some residents have filed a lawsuit noting that burning vinyl chloride can create phosgene gas — a toxic gas that was banned by the Geneva Protocol in the mid-20th century after it was used as a weapon in World War I.
Further, public health experts have said that testing air isn’t enough; contaminants can be absorbed into furniture and rugs, meaning that possible carcinogens could linger even after the smell is gone.
Others have argued that Norfolk Southern and lawmakers played a major role in causing the disaster. As The Lever uncovered earlier this month, Norfolk Southern had lobbied against a tightening of safety rules that would have updated rail industry braking standards which could have prevented this crash and many derailments of trains carrying toxic chemicals.
After facing increased scrutiny over his failure to address railroad standards or respond to the crash, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg released a number of guidelines that he says would help improve rail safety into the future, such as more reporting of the transportation of toxic materials and advance a rule that would require trains to have a minimum of two staffers for most rail operations.
But rail workers say that the new guidelines won’t adequately address safety concerns that they have raised for years and that the proposed rule would still allow companies to staff trains with only one worker.
The proposals also don’t address what rail workers say is the root of the East Palestine disaster and many other safety hazards in modern railroading. In their most recent fiery contract fight — in which the Biden administration and Congress stepped in to force members to work under a contract many of them opposed — rail unions heavily criticized the industry’s use of “precision scheduled railroading,” a cost-cutting model that workers have said leads to greater exploitation of workers and safety hazards.
“The root causes of [the East Palestine] wreck are the same ones that have been singled out repeatedly, associated with the hedge fund initiated operating model known as ‘Precision Scheduled Railroading’ (PSR),” Rail Workers United wrote in a statement earlier this month. “[I]ncreasingly the PSR driven Carriers, driven to cut costs and crew time by any means necessary, cut corners and leave crews and the public at risk.”