Angry Ohio residents seek answers over train derailment

Residents in the Ohio village turned upside down by a freight train derailment packed a school gym to find answers about whether they were safe from toxic chemicals being spilled or burned.

Hundreds of concerned people rallied in eastern Palestine near the Pennsylvania state line on Wednesday to hear state officials reiterate that testing shows local air is safe to breathe so far and promise that air and water monitoring is continued.

With the community in the national spotlight, US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan will visit Thursday to assess ongoing efforts and hear from affected residents.

Attendees at Wednesday’s briefing, originally billed as a town hall meeting, had many questions about health hazards and called for more transparency from rail operator Norfolk Southern, which did not attend, citing safety concerns for its employees.

“They just danced around the questions a lot,” said Danielle Deal, who lives a few miles from the derailment site. “Norfolk had to be here.”

In a statement, Norfolk Southern said it did not attend alongside local, state and federal officials because of a “growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community surrounding this event.”

Deal called it a “copout” and pointed out the seriousness of the incident.

Deal and her two children left home to stay with their mother, 13 miles away, “and we could still see the mushroom clouds as clear as day,” she said.

Nearly two weeks after the derailment, people in the area have many concerns about the huge plumes of smoke they saw, lingering odors, risks to domestic and wildlife, possible impacts on drinking water and what is happening with the cleanup efforts.

Even when school resumed and trains started rolling again, people were concerned.

“Why are they keeping it still?” Kathy Dyke said of the railroad. “They’re not out here to support us, they’re not out here to answer questions. For three days we didn’t even know what was on the train. “

“I have three grandchildren,” she said. “Are you going to grow up here in five years and have cancer? So those are all factors that concern me.”

In and around eastern Palestine, residents said they wanted help dealing with the financial aid the railroad has offered to hundreds of families who were evacuated and want to know if they will be held responsible for what happened.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost told Norfolk Southern on Wednesday that his office was considering legal action against the rail operator.

“The pollution that continues to pollute the area surrounding East Palestine has caused nuisance, damaged natural resources and caused environmental damage,” Yost said in a letter to the company.

The state environmental protection agency said recent tests showed five wells that supply the village’s drinking water are free of contaminants. But the EPA also recommends testing for residential water wells because they are closer to the surface.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates pollutant spills affected more than 7 miles (11.2 kilometers) of streams and killed about 3,500 fish, mostly small ones like minnows and darters.

There are isolated reports that pets or farm animals have fallen ill. No related animal deaths have been confirmed, state officials said, but that confirmation would require autopsies and laboratory work to establish the link to the incident.

Norfolk Southern announced Tuesday it is creating a $1 million fund to help the community of about 4,700 people while continuing cleanup work, including cleaning up spills from the ground and streams and monitoring the air quality.

It will also expand how many residents can be reimbursed for their evacuation costs, covering the entire village and surrounding area.

“We will be measured by our actions,” Norfolk Southern president and CEO Alan Shaw said in a statement that the company is “restoring the site in an environmentally responsible manner.”

No one was injured when about 50 cars derailed in fiery, mangled chaos on the outskirts of eastern Palestine on February 3. As fears of a possible explosion mounted, officials, wanting to avoid an uncontrolled explosion, evacuated the area and opted for release, burning toxic vinyl chloride from five train cars and sending flames and black smoke rising into the sky again.

A mechanical problem with a rail car’s axle is suspected to be the cause of the derailment, and the National Transportation Safety Board said it has video that appears to show a wheel bearing that had overheated shortly before. The NTSB said it expects its preliminary report in about two weeks.

Misinformation and exaggerations are rife online, and state and federal officials have repeatedly asserted that aerial surveillance found no remaining concerns. Even small amounts of contaminants that aren’t considered hazardous can cause lingering odors or symptoms like headaches, Ohio’s health director said Tuesday.

Precautions are also taken to ensure that contaminants that have reached the Ohio River do not enter drinking water.

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