The EPA’s action comes 18 days after the Feb. 3 train crash that released toxic chemicals and fumes over a wide area. In the two weeks since evicted residents were allowed to return to their homes, national attention on eastern Palestine has intensified, as many residents are angry and fear pollution and health risks.
The plans, to be announced by EPA Administrator Michael Reagan in eastern Palestine on Tuesday afternoon, would provide federal oversight of the massive cleanup through a legally binding order. Reagan’s visit to eastern Palestine, his second in a week, comes amid pressure from some lawmakers and residents on the federal government to step up its response.
“EPA’s order will ensure the agency is held accountable for endangering the health and safety of this community,” Reagan said in a statement before his news conference. “Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay to clean up the mess they created and the trauma they caused in this community.”
Before the Ohio derailment, Norfolk Southern lobbied against conservation provisions
The EPA’s move comes as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said his department will begin a round of inspections of rail lines used to transport hazardous materials and called on the railroad industry to implement new safety measures.
For days, a cleanup has been underway in East Palestine, a town near the Pennsylvania border, and a local stream. State officials said last week that crews are digging 1,000 feet around the railroad tracks to drain the water, while federal and state environmental regulators examine long-term mitigation measures aimed at ensuring water and soil protection.
Dozens of cars on a Norfolk Southern train caught fire on the night of February 3, triggering evacuations and two days later, vinyl chloride was released into the air from five train cars.
Since then, lingering chemical odors in the air have left residents reporting unpleasant health symptoms, worrying about potential impacts to animals and questioning whether it’s safe to stay in the city. EPA and Department of Transportation.
Under the EPA’s order, Norfolk Southern will be charged three times as much for anything it fails to do, the agency said. EPA will also lead the response; Until now, Ohio agencies and local officials have led the effort with support from the EPA.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has pledged to clean up the pollution. Company representatives skipped a town hall meeting with residents last week, after which Shaw issued an “open letter” saying the company would remain in eastern Palestine “as long as it takes to ensure your safety.”
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“I want the residents of East Palestine to know that Norfolk Southern will continue to help their community as long as they are needed,” Shaw said in a statement Monday, announcing that “a Norfolk Southern railroader who lives in East Palestine” will be hired. One year of social interaction is one of the various outreach activities undertaken by the Railways.
EPA officials and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has previously said he’s committed to Norfolk Southern’s cleanup and will take legal action if the railroad doesn’t do the job properly.
The EPA’s new step comes through CERCLA, which allows the federal government to clean up what are commonly known as Superfund sites. The agency said it marks a shift from emergency response to long-term cleanup.
This could be seen as a push by the Biden administration to take responsibility for the crisis and mitigate criticism.
The administration has denied allegations that it was slow to respond, saying federal workers were on the ground within hours of the crash.
Later this week, cleanup services will be provided to East Palestine residents and business owners, the EPA said. Teams sent by the central government to provide health checks to residents were also due to arrive on Tuesday.
The full effects of the disaster are still unknown. On Monday, Norfolk Southern said it had removed at least 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil and 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water from the tracks.
But it does not represent the full extent of pollution. The chemicals leaked into local waterways and into the air, and experts said it will take time to determine whether there is lasting contamination in soil and water.
Officials burned toxic chemicals off the Ohio train. Is that the right move?
Norfolk Southern said in a statement on Monday that most of the carriages carrying the hazardous chemicals had been decontaminated when the train derailed. If all is cleared, the National Transportation Safety Board will inspect the cars as part of its investigation before removing them.
This story will be updated.