Feb 21, 2023 - Politics & Policy

EPA orders Norfolk Southern to clean up Ohio train derailment site

Burn tanker cars in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 15.

Burn tanker cars in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 15. Photo: NTSB/Handout via Xinhua

The Environmental Protection Agency ordered Norfolk Southern on Tuesday to clean up the contamination from the derailment of one of its trains carrying hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month.

Why it matters: The railway operator has been cleaning up the crash site voluntarily, but the EPA's order will require the company to do so under a plan approved by the agency.

  • In issuing the order, the EPA is effectively taking over the longer-term remediation phase of the site's cleanup.

Catch up quick: Train cars carrying at least five different types of chemicals were involved in the Feb. 3 derailment, and at least three of those chemicals were either spilled during or released and burned after the wreck.

  • After the derailment, the company released and burned vinyl chloride, a colorless but hazardous and carcinogenic gas used to produce PVC plastic and vinyl products, from five tanker cars because of an explosion risk.

What they're saying: "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," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement.

  • "Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they’ve inflicted on this community," he added.

The big picture: Along with cleaning up contamination, the EPA ordered the company to reimburse the agency for cleaning services it will offer to East Palestine residents and businesses and to attend public meetings over the wreck.

  • The company backed out of a town hall meeting in East Palestine last week because it perceived a physical threat from "the participation of outside parties."
  • The EPA said in an update on Monday that it continues to detect normal air quality inside the town, and that its tests of the town's municipal well water showed no water quality concerns.
  • The EPA's order came shortly after Regan and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) drank tap water at home in East Palestine as a show of confidence in the quality of the town's drinking water.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on Tuesday told CNBC it's safe for families to return to East Palestine and the water there is safe to drink, adding that he drank the water himself.

  • Shaw also responded to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg's letter that accused the company of lobbying to put profits before safety measures: “It’s pretty clear that our safety culture and our investments in safety didn’t prevent this accident. We need to take a look at this and see what we can do differently and what we can do better.”

Go deeper: Norfolk Southern reported rise in railway accident rates ahead of Ohio train derailment

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