Angry East Palestine, Ohio Residents Confront Norfolk Southern Railroad Over Health Fears

Residents who say they are still suffering from illnesses nearly a month after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in Ohio confronted the railroad operator Thursday at a city forum, demanding to know if they will be relocated from homes they fear living in.

“It’s not safe here,” said one man, looking directly at the Norfolk Southern representatives. “I beg you, by the grace of God, please drive our people out of here.”

While the railroad announced it was ready to begin moving more contaminated soil from under the tracks, buying housing and moving people from East Palestine have not been discussed, said Darrell Wilson, the railroad’s assistant vice president of government relations.

“Why?” someone shouted.

Few seemed satisfied with the responses they heard about the air and water testing from state and federal officials — even as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it ordered Norfolk Southern to begin testing for dioxins, toxic chemicals that can remain in the environment for long periods of time.

Many people still fear whether the area will be safe for their children years from now, saying they fear the as-yet-undetected dioxins will cause long-term damage. Testing so far by the EPA for “indicator chemicals” has shown there is little chance of dioxins being released from the derailment, the agency said.

A woman points her finger during a town hall held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in East Palestine, Ohio, on March 2, 2023.

Some residents booed, laughed and shouted, “Don’t lie to us,” when Debra Shore, EPA regional administrator, reiterated that tests consistently show the village’s air is safe.

Investigators probing the fire that broke out after the derailment said it melted a key part of railcars filled with toxic chemicals, leading federal officials to warn owners of rail vehicles earlier Thursday to check their fleets for similar defects.

The National Transportation Safety Board said investigators determined the aluminum covers over the pressure relief valves on three of the five tankers carrying vinyl chloride had melted and that some of the metal was found around the valves.

The NTSB said molten aluminum may have degraded the performance of the valves and prevented them from releasing some of the flammable gas to relieve pressure inside the railcars. Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said the valve failure was part of why officials decided to break into the cars and burn the vinyl chloride. The resulting toxic fire caused the evacuation of half of East Palestine, Ohio and the surrounding area near the Pennsylvania border.

Shaw said the railroad agreed with all officials who responded to the Feb. 3 derailment that venting the hazardous materials was the best way to avoid a catastrophic explosion.

“The factors on the ground at the time were that the safety valves in the cars had failed and the temperatures inside the cars were rising,” Shaw said. “Thus, our independent expert was extremely concerned about a catastrophic uncontrolled explosion that would spew shrapnel and hazardous gas throughout this residential community.”

Wilson told residents that Norfolk Southern feels horrible about what happened. So far, more than 2 million gallons (7.6 million liters) of water and liquid waste have been removed along with 1,400 tons (1,270 metric tons) of solid waste.

Many people complained that Norfolk Southern opened the tracks less than a week after the derailment and did not remove the dirt from underneath. The railroad now plans to excavate the areas and will be able to remove all the contaminated soil by the end of April if it is able to begin immediately, Wilson said.

This only brought more jeers and angry shouts.

“You should have done it right the first time,” someone shouted.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration sent an emergency safety alert to tanker truck owners Thursday saying they should check how many of their cars have aluminum valve covers like the ones that melted after the Ohio derailment. The agency said car owners should consider switching to steel hoods, which are now the industry standard for new tankers.

It is not clear how many tankers in use may have aluminum valve covers. The cars involved in the derailment were all manufactured in the 1990s.

The derailment has caused many ongoing concerns for the roughly 5,000 residents of East Palestine, even though state and federal officials say their tests have not found harmful levels of toxic chemicals in the air or water around the derailment.

The NTSB said an overheating bearing likely caused the train to derail, sending 38 cars, 11 of which contained hazardous materials, off the tracks. A trackside sensor detected the overheating bearing shortly before the derailment, but the crew did not have enough time to stop the train.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said he is focused on making sure Norfolk Southern cleans up the mess by helping the city recover, and Shaw agreed to testify before Congress next week at a hearing on the derailment.

Already, members of Congress and the Biden administration have proposed several rail safety reforms, but Norfolk Southern and the other major freight railroads want to wait until the NTSB completes its investigation a year or more from now to make any major changes. changes.

Major freight railroads said earlier Thursday they would take one of the steps recommended by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and join a government program that operates a confidential hotline for employees to report safety concerns.

Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska and Seewer from Toledo, Ohio.

(tags For Translation) Ohio

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