Ohio Derailment: Head of EPA Visits East Palestine, But Residents Still Frustrated

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — ​​The head of the Environmental Protection Agency traveled to this small community on Thursday with promises of aid but faced skepticism from residents outraged over what they saw as a delayed response to the toxic spill unleashed by the recent train derailment.

The visit came within hours of an emotional and heated town meeting, where residents pleaded with town officials to address their safety concerns after Norfolk Southern, the railroad company, declined to send representatives.

Some residents said they did not think the visit by the E.P.A. chief, Michael Regan, would do enough. It has been nearly two weeks since the derailment. Since then, fears of an explosion prompted a controlled release of chemicals onboard and a multiday evacuation, with increasingly vocal complaints about headaches, noticeable odors and dead fish appearing in local creeks.

“It’s about time they showed up,” John Cozza, the owner of a pizza restaurant in East Palestine, said. “But I don’t know what they’re going to do about it.”

Mr. Cozza said he had been forced to keep his shop closed last weekend in part because of more widespread concerns about the ability to safely return to town. Neighbors and families have been telling younger people to leave town permanently, he said, and to seek a safer place to build a life.

“I’m worried about these kids,” Mr. Cozza, 69, said, adding, “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Mr. Regan’s visit came on the same day that the White House, responding to a request from Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio for emergency assistance, announced that teams from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would head to East Palestine. The community of about 5,000 residents is at the center of anxiety in the wake of the derailment this month of the Norfolk Southern freight train that was transporting hazardous chemicals across the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

Mr. Regan, who faced questions on Thursday about whether he would feel comfortable living in the region and allowing his children to drink the water, repeatedly sought to assure the public that the testing conducted by the state was trustworthy. Flanked by Ohio lawmakers and officials from his agency, he stressed that the tests were accurate and had yet to show serious risks of contaminations.

“We’re testing for everything that was on that train, so we feel comfortable that we are casting a net wide enough to present a picture that will protect the community,” he said, speaking at a news conference after visiting Sulphur Run, a creek affected by the release of chemicals. There, an official in a Hazmat suit carried equipment, while several loud machines nearby pumped water.

“As a father, I trust the science. I trust the methodology the state is using,” Mr. Regan said at the news conference.

He also said there were no immediate plans to designate the area a Superfund site, the name for a highly contaminated area designated for federal cleanup. Mr. Regan indicated that Norfolk Southern would be expected to pay for addressing contamination and other issues, and he recommended that families with wells use bottled water as a precaution until tests showed them safe to use.

Mr. Regan also said that the air quality monitoring in screened homes “has not detected any levels of health concerns in the community that are attributable to the train derailment,” including any dangerous levels of hydrogen chloride or vinyl chloride. Five of the rail cars were carrying vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastic. Hydrogen chloride is one of several toxic chemicals that are released by burning vinyl chloride.

Mr. Regan said the agency is continuing to do round-the-clock air monitoring and has begun testing groundwater, joining other officials in seeking to address concerns about the long-term implications of the derailment and possible exposure to the chemicals.

For all of the repeated assurances from federal, state and local officials, the prevailing fear among people who live here is whether there are toxic consequences for those who stay.

“No community should have to go through something like this, but you need to know that you’re not alone,” said Representative Bill Johnson, Republican of Ohio. Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, vowed to work with Mr. Johnson and other lawmakers to scrutinize any legislation that could address what happened, including the fact that the train was classified in a way that did not require local officials to be notified about its hazardous cargo.

Mr. Brown has also pushed for Mr. DeWine to request a disaster declaration for East Palestine and the affected region, a necessary step to unlock certain federal aid and supplement the separate request for doctors and other medical assistance.

Mr. DeWine’s office, however, said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency found that the area did not qualify for such a declaration, in part because the railroad company was paying for some residential expenses and because of the lack of damage to personal property after the derailment. (A FEMA spokeswoman noted that the agency was in touch with state and federal agencies in the region.)

Senator J.D. Vance, Republican of Ohio, speaking in East Palestine after making a separate visit to the region on Thursday, said that “we need to get the resources necessary for this community to rebuild.”

Mr. Vance added that he was unsatisfied with not just the railroad company’s response but with that of federal health agencies and the lack of clarity about testing and the level of contamination that makes water hazardous.

“It’s up to us to give people the confidence to come back to their homes,” he said. “And if people don’t feel that, that’s on us, not on them.”

Maria Michalos, an E.P.A. spokeswoman, said the agency has had a presence on the ground in East Palestine since 2 a.m. on Feb. 4, the morning after the crash, to help state and local authorities with response efforts. By the end of that day, the E.P.A. had 17 coordinators and contractors performing air quality monitoring and testing, brought in a mobile analytical laboratory to test samples and deployed a special aircraft to assess emissions releases.

Residents have largely placed the blame on Norfolk Southern and fumed Wednesday evening when representatives for the company backed out of the meeting with local officials. Others have questioned why there was an apparent rush to repair the tracks and ensure that the trains could continue running through the town.

Six members of Congress who represent the region — including Mr. Brown, Mr. Vance and Mr. Johnson — wrote to the railroad company. They demanded details about the company’s plans for financially supporting the region’s farmers and residents and for cleaning up any contaminated soils and water sources, along with details about the railroad’s operations.

The company has repeatedly pledged to not only provide financial aid but to also continue work cleaning up the area. Alan H. Shaw, the president and chief executive, wrote an open letter promising that “we are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive.”

But some residents and officials have also demanded more of the federal government, singling out Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, and the E.P.A. in particular, for not moving more quickly to address their concerns and the extent of the damage.

Noting that the derailment site was 20 miles from his state’s border, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a Democrat, called it “unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up.” He demanded a “complete picture of the damage and a comprehensive plan to ensure the community is supported in the weeks, months and years to come.”

Asked about Mr. Regan’s visit, Mark Milnes, 61, declared it “too little, too late.”

“I’m worried about washing my dishes with the tap water, and the laundry and taking a bath,” he later added. “I’m concerned about the children.”

Michael D. Shear and Ida Lieszkovszky contributed reporting.

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