Air and private well monitoring is continuing near the site of a train derailment, fire and a burnoff of vinyl chloride monomer in East Palestine, Ohio, while the CEO of rail company Norfolk Southern Corp. says the company "will not walk away" from the community.
State and federal environmental officials said the municipal water system is safe to drink and air levels in the area "are similar to what they were before the accident."
A train carrying five cars of VCM — a feedstock of PVC — as well as two cars each of polypropylene and polyethylene resins were being hauled on the NS freight train when it derailed on cars were listed as "involved in fire." The two cars of PP resin were not involved in the derailment. The status of the two cars of PE resin was unclear.
Two of the cars contained benzene, a chemical used in production of styrene monomer and other plastics feedstocks. The list said the two benzene cars were damaged by fire but were not breached.
National Transportation Safety Board officials have said that the preliminary cause of the derailment was a mechanical issue on an axle of one of the rail cars. They added that no injuries were reported from the three-person crew on board the train. NTSB is the primary agency investigating the derailment, which happened as the train was traveling east from Madison, Ill., to Conway, Pa.
"Norfolk Southern is responsible for this," Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said at a Feb. 14 news conference. "They did it and the impact on the community has been huge.
"We expect Norfolk Southern to cover the costs," he said. "They're responsible for this problem and we expect them to do what their CEO committed to pay for. If not, we have an attorney general and can file a lawsuit."
In a letter posted on the NS website, CEO Alan Shaw said that the firm "will not walk away" from East Palestine.
"When I visited East Palestine last week, you told me how the train derailment has upended your lives and how concerned you are about the safety of your air, water, and land," he added in the letter. "Many of you have also reached out to Norfolk Southern to share your fears, your anger, and your frustration. I hear you. We hear you.
"I know there are still a lot of questions without answers," Shaw said. "I know you're tired. I know you're worried. We will not let you down."
Local residents were asked to evacuate their homes on Feb. 5 due to chemical leaks and worries the cars could explode. They were allowed to return on Feb. 8. The fire and VCM burnoff created black clouds of smoke that could be seen from miles away. The derailment also has led to concerns about air, water and soil quality in the affected area.
DeWine said the decision to drain and burn the VCM was made by state officials in Ohio and Pennsylvania — since the affected area affected both states — and railroad officials. The Ohio National Guard, activated by DeWine, also worked with the U.S. Department of Defense to model potential outcomes from the accident.
"We were faced with two bad outcomes," DeWine said. "We could do nothing and wait for a car to explode … and it would have been a catastrophic explosion sending shrapnel up to a mile. … We also looked at the effects of a controlled release and made the decision to go ahead."
Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Mary Mertz said that 3,500 fish died in local waterways as a result of the accident. She added that there was no evidence of "non-aquatic species" being impacted by the derailment. Livestock in the area also have not been affected by the derailment, according to Ohio Department of Agriculture Director Brian Baldridge.
Local media reports have said that chickens and other small animals in the area have been found dead. Local health officials could not be reached to confirm those reports.
Tiffani Kavalec, Ohio EPA surface water division chief, said that no VCM has been detected in local waterways, although some volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have been found. She added that some of the tributaries lead to the Ohio River, but that the river "is very large and can dilute pollutants fairly quickly."
Ohio Department of Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff said that air levels in the area "are similar to what they were before the accident," but that residents using private water wells should use bottled water until their wells can be tested. Most area residents use a municipal water system that wasn't affected by the derailment, he said.
When asked if he'd return to his house if he lived in the area, DeWine said that "I'd be drinking bottled water and checking to find out what the tests show, but I'd probably be back in my house."
DeWine added that it was "absurd" that the train wasn't listed as high hazardous material, meaning there was no requirement for the railroad to notify Ohio officials that it was moving through the state.
"Congress needs to take a look at this and take appropriate action," he added.
The U.S. EPA already has issued a general notice of potential liability to NS. That letter documents the release or threat of release of hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants to the environment following the derailment. It also outlines EPA cleanup actions at the site and the potential to hold Atlanta-based NS accountable for associated costs.