Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, will get the opportunity to address the operator of a train that derailed while carrying toxic chemicals in their community nearly one month ago as frustrations mount over potential long-term health effects.
The Environmental Protection Agency ordered the operator – Norfolk Southern – to meet with East Palestine residents Thursday evening as the community grapples with the impact of the February 3 derailment that first forced them to flee their homes, then brought them anxiety as reports of symptoms like headaches and rashes emerged.
Last month, Norfolk Southern – which has been ordered by the EPA to fully clean up the wreck– backed out of a town hall with local officials, citing threats against its employees.
The toxic wreck left an immense amount of contaminated soil and liquids at the crash site – hazardous waste that’s now being trucked out for disposal.
In addition to residents who reported health effects, crews involved in the clean-up have also reported symptoms, according to a letter from workers’ unions to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said Wednesday that health concerns are being taken seriously, while adding that he feels confident that the air and water in the town are safe.
“What people are experiencing is real, and we want to take their very real symptoms very seriously,” he said. “But we want to make sure we’re arriving at the correct answers and working with their doctors to arrive at the best, most appropriate treatment plan.”
Vanderhoff said he hasn’t seen or heard anything alarming after meeting with people in the community.
“I understand the concerns – the health concerns, the anxieties – people have, given what they have heard, especially some of the misinformation that they are getting from social media and other platforms,” Vanderhoff said.
DeWine – who toured the cleanup operation for the first time Wednesday – told CNN he was concerned for the firefighters who initially rushed to the scene of the fiery train derailment last month, not knowing that there were hazardous chemicals involved.
While the local fire chief reported no issues, he was worried about long-term health effects – a concern the governor shares, DeWine said.
“The fear is real,” the governor said, adding that “the railroad’s gonna have to put money into a fund at some point, to make sure that any long-term problems are dealt with.”
The EPA and local government officials have repeatedly said their tests show the air quality in the area is safe and the chemicals should dissipate.
So far, lab results show East Palestine’s municipal water supply “continues to show no detection of contaminants associated with the train derailment,” the governor’s office said. And the EPA has also not detected contaminants tied to the derailment while testing air quality within area homes.
For weeks, crews have been busy at the site of the derailment, working to clear the charred train cars and haul contaminated soil and liquid from the wreck – and there’s a lot more work to be done, officials say.
“The whole goal here is to make this community safe. And it can’t happen overnight, you can’t get all this stuff out of here overnight,” DeWine said Wednesday.
Crews are expected to begin removing the train tracks this week to clean the hazardous waste under them – a huge task compared to what has been removed so far, officials said.
As cleanup work continues, a letter was sent Wednesday to Buttigieg and DeWine on behalf of maintenance workers that criticized Norfolk Southern of putting workers at risk and not providing personal protective equipment.
Many employees “reported that they continue to experience migraines and nausea, days after the derailment, and they all suspect that they were willingly exposed to these chemicals at the direction of NS,” the letter states.
CNN has reached out to Norfolk Southern for comment on the letter.
Meanwhile, there’s still hazardous waste at the derailment site. DeWine estimates that approximately 30,000 truckloads of waste will be removed from the crash site by the time cleanup is done.
Already, about 1.8 million gallons of liquid waste water and 700 tons of solid waste have been hauled out of East Palestine, DeWine’s office said in a Wednesday update. Shipments have gone to waste processing facilities in Vickery, Ohio; East Liverpool, Ohio; Deer Park, Texas; Romulus, Michigan; and Belleville, Michigan.
As cleanup continues, a floral or fruity chemical smell still lingers in East Palestine.
The odor is being caused by residual butyl acrylate which was spilled after the train derailment, according to Anne Vogel, director of the Ohio EPA.
The levels of butyl acrylate being detected in water sampling are around 2 or 3 parts per billion, well below levels that would cause immediate health effects, Vogel said, explaining that the federal hazard level for butyl acrylate in drinking water is around 560 parts per billion.
Exposure to high levels of butyl acrylate vapors can cause irritation, redness and tearing of the eyes, a runny nose, scratchy throat, difficulty breathing, and redness and cracking of the skin, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Vogel said she did not know whether butyl acrylate could be leading to long term health effects and said the health study being conducted by the CDC would hopefully shed some light on that.
A data analysis from the EPA’s measurements of pollutants released following the derailment suggests some levels of monitored chemicals are higher than normally would be found in the area, according to scientists from Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon universities.
If the levels of some chemicals remain high, it could be a problem for residents’ health in the long term, the scientists say.
An EPA spokesperson told CNN levels of monitored chemicals “are below levels of concern for adverse health impacts from short-term exposures,” and that the analysis assumes there would be a constant exposure over approximately 70 years.
“EPA does not anticipate levels of these chemicals will stay high for anywhere near that,” the spokesperson said.
The derailment in East Palestine put rail safety under the spotlight and raised questions about the regulations surrounding the transport of hazardous materials.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a new bill aimed at shoring up rail safety.
The Railway Safety Act of 2023 includes a number of provisions to boost safety procedures to prevent future incidents, including “new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride,” a requirement for advance notice from railways to state emergency response officials about what their trains are carrying, among other rules, according to a news release from the senators.
It also addresses the risk of wheel bearing failures by ramping up detection and inspection and requires “well-trained, two person crews aboard every train.”
Also, the Federal Railroad Administration will begin focused inspections of rail routes carrying hazardous material nationwide, the agency’s administrator said in a Wednesday press conference.
The inspections will start in East Palestine and expand across the country, FRA Administrator Amit Bose said.
“We will continue to take steps to ensure the highest level of safety and so that no community experiences what the people of East Palestine are going through right now,” Bose added.
The new action comes ahead of a critical hearing set for next week with Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, who has agreed to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.
The company has publicly promised to fully clean up the wreck and has vowed to invest in East Palestine “for the long-term.”