The U.S. EPA has issued a general notice of potential liability to Norfolk Southern after a 50-car train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, led to a massive fire and a burnoff of five railcars of plastics feedstock vinyl chloride monomer.
The letter documents the release or threat of release of hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants to the environment following the Feb. 3 train derailment. It also outlines EPA cleanup actions at the site and the potential to hold Atlanta-based NS accountable for associated costs.
Residents in a 1-by-2-mile grid were asked to evacuate on Feb. 5 after fire crews were unable to contain the fire, leading to a risk of one or more of the VCM railcars exploding. On Feb. 6, work crews drained the VCM cars and burned off the material, causing black clouds of smoke which could be seen from miles away. Residents were allowed to return to their homes on Feb. 8.
EPA officials said Feb. 13 that re-entry air screenings are underway in the area and that community air monitoring will continue operating 24 hours a day. As of the night of Feb. 12, 291 homes had been screened with no detections of VCM or hydrogen chloride identified. There are 181 homes that remain to be screened. Screenings were conducted after being requested by residents.
EPA has deployed two additional air sampling canisters for continuous sampling. Local schools and the library were screened on Feb. 12. EPA's network of air monitoring stations throughout the East Palestine area have not detected anything above the action level.
Officials added Feb. 14 that surface water sampling results from Feb. 4 detected pollutants connected to the derailment. Officials said that they expect the pollutants to degrade and dilute over time without additional negative impact to aquatic life.
NS contractors have installed a dam and a water bypass at Sulphur Run — one of the waterways where pollutants were detected — to prevent further contamination of downstream waters. Contractors also have stopped spillage of remaining spilled product into the stream.
EPA also posted online a list from NS of the hazardous materials carried by the train. The list shows the five VCM cars, as well as four cars of PVC resin and two cars each of polyethylene and polypropylene resins. Two of the PVC cars were listed as "involved in fire," while one of the cars had burned and the other was still burning, according to the list. 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.
The train included 150 railcars, 50 of them were involved in the crash. Ten of those 50 contained hazardous materials, with five of those containing VCM.
EPA provides the results of its air monitoring to local health agencies, who then make determinations on what local residents should do, an EPA spokesperson told Plastics News last week.
In a Feb. 13 news release, NS officials said that more than 700 families and several businesses have been helped at a family assistance center opened by NS in nearby New Waterford. They added that more than $1 million has been distributed directly to families to cover costs related to the evacuation.
The firm also has donated $220,000 to the East Palestine Fire Department to replace breathing apparatus air packs and has provided more than 100 air purifiers for residents to use in their homes.
In addition, NS has funded cleaning and air monitoring services for the East Palestine Elementary and High Schools and opened a charitable fund to support the community, including an initial contribution of $25,000 to the Ohio Red Cross to support a shelter established at the high school.
Officials said that NS has sampled East Palestine's drinking water supply wells, drinking water system and private wells in areas potentially impacted by the incident. Sample results will be available in the next week.
They've also started excavating soil from the incident site and sampling the soil before safe disposal and have contacted residents on well water in the vicinity of the derailment to conduct water testing. That area includes 38 wells.
NS officials said Feb. 7 that the firm and its contractors had begun clearing the site of derailed cars and were continuing environmental remediation work. They added that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will inspect the cars at a staging area before they're cleared and removed.
Local media reports have said that chickens and other small animals in the area have been found dead. Officials with the East Palestine Fire Department and the Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency could not be reached to confirm those reports.
NTSB officials have said that the preliminary cause of the derailment was a mechanical issue on an axle of one of the railcars. 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.
East Palestine has a population of about 5,000. It is located 15 miles south of Youngstown and about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.