The train hauling toxic chemicals that derailed in the village of East Palestine, causing a massive fire with thick billowing smoke, evacuation orders, an explosion scare and toxic chemical concerns was not considered a “high hazardous-material train,” requiring notification of local authorities.
“We should know when we have trains carrying hazardous materials through Ohio,” Gov. Mike DeWine said during a Tuesday afternoon press briefing on the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment.
Update on East Palestine Train Derailment with @GovMikeDeWine LIVE here: https://t.co/GotTyiufKm— Ohio Channel (@TheOhioChannel) February 14, 2023
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating, said Tuesday that 38 cars derailed, apparently due to a broken axle, and a fire ensued that damaged another 12 cars.
The train of about 150 cars included 20 carrying hazardous materials, according to a letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency putting Norfolk Southern Railway Company on notice about its potential liability for cleanup costs.
Of particular concern was vinyl chloride, a toxic flammable gas that could lead to a potentially “catastrophic” explosion spreading deadly shrapnel close to one mile out in all directions based on military models, the governor said.
“We also looked at what the danger was to a controlled release,” DeWine said of the decision ultimately reached to mitigate the train cars turning “into a bomb.”
Vinyl chloride was slowly released into the air last week from five of those cars before crews set it on fire to get rid of the highly flammable, toxic chemicals. The resulting explosion created a dark plume of smoke, which hung over the northeast Ohio town.
In addition to vinyl chloride, at least three other substances — butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl — were released into the air, soil or water, the U.S. EPA letter stated.
Even though some of the rail cars had hazardous materials aboard, not enough did for it to be considered a “high hazardous-material train.” Thus, federal law does not require rail companies to report what hazardous materials are in transport, said the governor, who called on Congress to take appropriate action regarding notification mandates.
First responders in East Palestine had no idea what toxic chemicals they were confronting at the time of the fiery derailment and spillage of toxic chemicals into local waterways.
Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said the derailment, massive fire and toxic chemical release led to the deaths of 3,500 fish of 12 different species in the first few days in Sulfur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek and a portion of the North Fork of Beaver Creek, across about 7.5 miles of streams. She noted none of the fish were threatened or endangered, and that the deaths have stopped.
There is no evidence of deaths to nonaquatic wildlife as a result of the derailment, Mertz said. However, there are unconfirmed anecdotal reports from area residents.
Initial spillage from the derailment and the subsequent firefighting effort has reached the Ohio River, but it’s a large body of water able to dissipate the pollutants quickly, said Tiffani Kavalec of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
Water quality agencies for communities that source their water from the Ohio River have been put on standby, she said, noting that filtration technology is designed to filter volatile organic compounds.
Drinking water supplied by municipal systems is considered safe at this point, but Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff urged everyone in the affected area to consume bottled water while testing is ongoing. And those who use private wells are definitely urged to drink bottled water and to seek free water testing offered as part of remediation efforts.
Soil testing for pollutants is ongoing, officials said.
DeWine said he received a personal guarantee from Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw that the rail company would stay on site until the mess was cleaned up.
Norfolk Southern officials on Tuesday assured DeWine the railroad would stay on site until everything is cleaned up, the governor said.
“Norfolk Southern is responsible for this problem. … The impact on this community is huge,” DeWine said. “My objective is to do everything we can to get this cleaned up as quickly as we can.”
“The railroad caused this problem. They are going to be held accountable,” DeWine said.
Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said the derailment, massive fire and toxic chemical release led to the deaths of 3,500 fish of 12 different species in the first few days.
None of those fish species are threatened or endangered, and there is not any evidence of deaths to nonaquatic wildlife as a result of the derailment, she said.
Sulfur Run remains contaminated, but is contained, said Tiffani Kavalec of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
The spill did flow to the Ohio River initially, but it’s a large body of water able to dissipate the pollutants quickly, Kavalec said.
Drinking water is believed safe for residents using municipal water in the area of the derailment, but bottled water is recommended as officials continue to test the water supply, said Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff.
Those with private wells are urged to have the water tested, which is free as part of remediation efforts, he said.
Soil testing for pollutants is ongoing, officials said.
The U.S. EPA has remained on site since responding at 2 a.m. Feb. 4, EPA Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore said in a statement Tuesday. Air testing indicates that levels of Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, have returned to the same level as before the derailment.
Air monitoring has not detected any chemical levels in the community attributed to the train derailment that would cause health problems, Shore said, adding that air monitoring data was provided to state health agencies on Feb. 8 prior to the state’s decision to lift the evacuation.
As of Tuesday, federal and state agencies have tested nearly 400 homes for vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride under a voluntary screening program, So far the chemicals have not been detected, and dozens more houses are scheduled for screening.
Concerns are growing about the potential environmental impact of the crash, some fueled by online misinformation.
For more information the EPA Region 5 has a dedicated phone line 215-814-2400 staffed by community coordinators and created a web page for residents to stay informed about the most up to date monitoring results: https://response.epa.gov/EastPalestineTrainDerailment.