News Nation: Ohio Train Derailment: Have Cleanup Demands Been Met Year Later?
This article features Government Accountability Project whistleblower, Scott Smith, and was originally published here.
(NewsNation) — Nearly nine months have passed since a group of concerned residents demanded action from state and federal government and the railroad company after last year’s toxic train derailment in Ohio.
The Unity Council for the EP Train Derailment — a group of residents living near the site affected by the derailment — issued its list of six demands in May, addressing locals’ concerns about housing relocation, chemical testing and disposal of toxic waste.
The railroad company Norfolk Southern and government agencies have made some progress toward those goals, but communities impacted by the derailment have a long way to go, Unity Council Vice President Hilary Flint said.
“It’s very much an ongoing cleanup,” she said. “This narrative that things are done and over with just isn’t true.”
Emergency or disaster declaration
The Unity Council asked Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to immediately declare a disaster in East Palestine as well as seek full support of the federal government.
DeWine wrote to President Joe Biden in July seeking a presidential disaster declaration. In September, the Biden administration said it would withhold the declaration until Ohio could explain what needs might arise in the future that would need federal assistance.
Biden also appointed FEMA disaster coordinator Jim McPherson to see if the community had unmet needs that would qualify for federal assistance.
“We did get to step one,” Flint said. “We did get DeWine to take action, but unfortunately, we have not gotten any push for Biden to do the same.”
Proving the kind of property damage necessary to warrant a FEMA disaster is an obstacle of its own, DeWine press secretary Dan Tierney said.
Biden additionally ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for the cleanup, meaning those costs first fall to the rail company, not FEMA. The president is expected to visit the derailment site sometime this month, though a date hasn’t been announced.
“They certainly have undergone a great trauma,” Tierney said of the impacted communities. “And certainly we understand that if somebody wants to move because of trauma they’ve undergone, that they should be able to do that. Obviously, we know that should be resolved through the litigation with Norfolk Southern. There’s just no other mechanism in law to do it.”
Housing and relocation
Once the evacuation was lifted, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) measured more than 600 homes for volatile organic chemicals.
“A few homes and businesses had detectable levels of contaminants, and those residents were temporarily relocated,” an EPA spokesperson told NewsNation. “No vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride was detected in homes.”
Some residents, however, report continued skin and eye irritation, respiratory problems and other health issues upon returning home. Some residents have stayed in hotels outside of town, paid for by Norfolk Southern, but time is running out.
“Norfolk Southern had a temporary relocation program, which is ending next week,” Flint said. “And that program was only for people in a one-by-two-mile radius.”
The temporary relocation program started in March and was a voluntary program for residents who had already returned home but wanted to temporarily relocate while remediation was underway at the derailment site.
That intensive work was completed in October, and Norfolk Southern formally notified impacted residents in December that the program would end Feb. 9. Less than 40 households are still participating, the rail company said.
With nowhere else to go, some set aside their apprehension and returned home, but others are looking to sell.
To that end, Norfolk Southern launched a home value assurance program designed to protect the value of eligible residential properties.
After reviewing more than 115 million monitoring points and tens of thousands of environmental sample results since the evacuation was lifted, the EPA determined that individual concentrations of the chemicals found in East Palestine from the derailment “pose a very low risk to human health.”
“If any outside expert has credible science to show that people are in danger, we stand ready to examine that science and engage constructively, as we’ve done with a host of other advocates and community representatives,” an EPA spokesperson said.
Those who sought outside testing weren’t always reimbursed as they hoped they would be.
“A lot of the people that got independent testing through universities didn’t have to pay,” Flint said. “If you hired an independent testing expert or company, you did have to foot the bill.”
Independent testing by expert Scott Smith found the presence of cancer-causing chemical vinyl chloride in the home of at least one resident.
Medical testing and monitoring
In the nearly six-month period after the derailment, the East Liverpool Hospital Clinic saw more than 600 local residents. Free visits were offered to those without insurance coverage, according to the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.
Those who took their concerns to their doctor said their symptoms couldn’t be definitively linked back to the train derailment.
“From there, you’re just reporting (symptoms),” Flint said. “You’re not actually getting any treatment or referrals. For example, I was able to get a referral to a toxicologist from my personal doctor, but my insurance would not pay for that. That seems to be the situation for a lot of people.”
The EPA said the agency is working alongside the National Institutes of Health to support “rapid research” touching on community members’ health concerns.
Equal treatment and proper filtration
Among the Unity Council’s demands was a push for officials to communicate with locals in a way that “values inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility.” That included making sure that elderly residents have access to relevant updates.
Since the derailment, Norfolk Southern has provided updates about recovery efforts on a website dedicated to the damage in and near East Palestine.
Residents also demanded water filtration systems, which Flint said haven’t been made available to residents who rely on private wells.
In an email to NewsNation, Norfolk Southern said it collected more than 1,200 private drinking water well samples. Environmental testing showed air and drinking water in the community are safe, the rail company said.
Many residents remain skeptical of impacted areas’ air and water quality.
Toxic waste disposal
As of Jan. 31, more than 176,000 tons of contaminated solid waste and more than 45 million gallons of wastewater had been shipped out of East Palestine, according to the EPA.
“We have a little bit of a win in the beginning where we were able to convince them to get some of the soil shipped elsewhere,” Flint said. “
Some locals, however, still have concerns about the potential for treated wastewater returning to the city’s sewage system, she added.
The site is still being assessed to determine whether all contaminated soils were removed. The EPA is still looking into what additional cleanup might be necessary.