Rail company Norfolk Southern Corp. will be held responsible for damages resulting from an Ohio train derailment that involved plastics feedstock vinyl chloride and resulted in environmental concerns for people and animals, state officials said at a Feb. 14 news conference.
"Norfolk Southern is responsible for this," Gov. Mike DeWine said at the event. "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."
National Transportation Safety Board officials have said that the preliminary cause of the Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, 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.
DeWine added that he's had several phone calls with Alan Shaw, CEO of Atlanta-based NS, and has been assured that NS will remain in the area until the site is cleared and all environmental issues have been addressed.
Local residents were asked to evacuate their homes on Feb. 5 and 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."
DeWine added that he had received a call from President Joe Biden, who offered any support the federal government could provide. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro was involved in the decision making via phone. DeWine added that he's been in touch with U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance.
At the news event, 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 the number of deaths have since declined and 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. Officials with the East Palestine Fire Department and the Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency 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."
"The water is being treated to address concerns," she added. "We're confident that [VOCs] won't be passed on to [water] customers."
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 which 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."