DeWine calls on Norfolk Southern to meet its ‘obligation’ in cleanup
EAST PALESTINE — Ever since the Norfolk Southern train derailment caused an environmental disaster in East Palestine on Feb. 3, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has demanded that Norfolk Southern clean up the mess and take responsibility for the ripple effects that are being felt beyond the village.
DeWine repeated those demands during a stop in East Palestine on Friday that included a visit to the derailment site.
“Norfolk Southern has an obligation to put this community back to where it was,” he said during a press briefing in the Cardinal Welding parking lot. “We didn’t ask for this trainwreck. It is their train. It is their tracks. It’s their trainwreck.”
After voicing his frustrations last week with the slow pace of the cleanup, DeWine reported that progress is being made at the derailment site with 1,620 tons of waste removed this week and 910 tons removed the week before as well as a total of 6.7 million gallons of contaminated liquid extracted since the disaster. He said it is estimated that 26,000 tons of toxic dirt remains.
Cleanup efforts had been hampered by the refusal of governors to receive the toxic waste at licensed facilities in their respective states. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy blocked a shipment of contaminated soil last month and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt turned away East Palestine soil last week.
Several other states, including Texas, have spoken out against accepting hazardous materials from the derailment. On Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan reminded states that it was not their decision, telling reporters in Wasington that “any attempts to impede interstate shipments of hazardous waste threatens the integrity of the system.” He warned that such attempts are unlawful under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The EPA invoked its authority granted by the law, also known as the federal “Superfund,” ordering the railroad to pay for the cleanup and environmental remediation. It is the same act that Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost used as grounds for the state to file suit against Norfolk Southern earlier in the week. Under CERCLA, Norfolk Southern must dispose of the waste and licensed facilities approved by the EPA must take that waste, despite objections from their state officials.
“We had a situation where some states said ‘we’re not going to take it.’ Today, the EPA called everybody’s attention to what the law is. This is interstate commerce,” DeWine said. “It’s kind of crazy because what we are sending from here is no worse than stuff (out-of-state facilities) are taking every other day. In fact, they are taking worse stuff than we are sending.”
Also on Friday, Regan estimated that the cleanup should take three more months, but DeWine would not commit to a timeline or say when he believes cleanup work will be completed at the derailment site.
“I can’t say that. (Norfolk Southern) is still on the first track. They made huge progress but there’s still more work to be done until they can get to the second track,” he said “There is a lot of work to be done. We are going to continue to do everything we can to push this thing through the railroad to get the job done, but I can’t predict these things.”
Dewine said the method of assuring only clean soil is left behind is time-consuming in itself. Initially, contaminated soil was buried beneath the re-laid tracks to get the railroad up and running just one week after the accident. Norfolk Southern reversed those remediation plans at the end of February. The railroad installed new tracks and began excavating and testing the dirt.
“They take (the dirt) down to where they think there will be nothing there, no problem. They take it down to the clay and then they test that,” he said. “And if that comes back with anything in it, they keep digging and they just keep going until they get it cleared. That is the process they are following.”
While tests on the dirt at the derailment site have been ongoing, the EPA has started intensive soil sampling of private and agricultural land in and around East Palestine using a grid approach. The first phase began March 9.
“The EPA has gridded off the area and taken samples from different grids. The EPA map shows where testing and samples are being taken,” DeWine explained. “We don’t have any results back but we are well into that process. We are about halfway in as far as the sampling goes, and we think that will give us a pretty good understanding of what is going on with the soil.”
DeWine also expressed concern over the possible implications the derailment could have on area property values. The concern goes beyond equity losses for homeowners. Lower property values mean lower taxes and less money for East Palestine schools.
“We expect Norfolk Southern to be accountable for that and to fill that gap so that the schools can continue on and do not suffer from this trainwreck,” he said. “A fund will be established and Norfolk Southern would put a chunk of money in there and there would be guidelines on how that money is paid out over future years.”
That fund will also be used to remedy any health problems that may arise from chemicals spilled during the derailment and exposure from the controlled burn of vinyl chloride.
“The biggest concern expressed to me many times over, even by people who don’t have any symptoms or maybe nobody in their family has symptoms,” DeWine said, “they say ‘Look. I am worried about my son, my daughter, myself in five years, 10 years, 15, 20 years.’ That is a huge concern people have in East Palestine. This fund has to be there to take care of things like that well, well into the future. We don’t have a crystal ball.”
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw met with local media in East Palestine on Thursday and pledged such a fund, though he said the structure and details of that funding are still in the planning phase. Shaw also announced the launch of the railroad’s “Making it Right in East Palestine” website (nsmakingitright.com) to keep those impacted by the disaster updated on resources and funding available now. Concerns can also be brought to the NFS Family Assistance Center located at the Abundant Life in New Waterford.
Also on Friday, DeWine reported that tests of the municipal water are coming back “clear” and that data from the air monitoring in the village has caused no alarms. In addition, he said the return of the eastern hellbenders to North Fork and Beaver Creek areas is a positive indication of improved water quality in the local waterways as the endangered salamander cannot thrive in poor water.
DeWine also announced a plan to put mobile health units on the ground in East Palestine as well as plans to implement statewide specialized training for fire and EMS to better prepare for environmental disasters like the derailment. The mobile health unit would visit individuals, who were and are still unable to get to the East Palestine Health Assessment Clinic, in their homes. The first environmental-disaster training for first responders will be held for East Palestine on Tuesday and across the state at later dates. The training program is backed by Norfolk Southern at DeWine’s request.
DeWine and his wife, Fran, began their trip to East Palestine Friday by visiting East Palestine High School. The couple will close the day by attending the high school’s production of the “The Lion King Jr.” at 7 p.m.