EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Behind William Hugar’s East Palestine home, cleanup continues at the site of last week’s train derailment and fire. In front of it, he watches the street sweepers going back and forth.
“Hey, if you saw how muddy they were, I like it, one good rain, and this will all go away,” he said. When asked if he was concerned where the rain will take what’s on the ground he said, “he more rain we get, the more it will be diluted, the more it’s diluted, the less it will harm. Nature can clean itself.”
Hugar may not be concerned about the long-term environmental impact, but his two U.S. Senators are. “We still don’t have the disaster cleaned up, so we still have toxic chemicals seeping into the groundwater, seeping into the water supply, that’s a real problem,” said Sen. JD Vance (R-OH).
“The second thing I worry about is are we actually adequately measuring and testing the levels of contamination in the water and in the air in the first place, and then a related question is once we know, assuming we are testing properly, what are the levels that are acceptable? I have not been able to get a good answer,” Vance said.
As Vance and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) meet with residents, they’re well aware of the wariness that comes with saying they’re from Washington, and they’re here to help.
“There’s a lack of trust — there’s a lack of trust of the EPA, of government, we know that,” said Brown. “I’m here in part to try to bridge that.”
Count William Sugar among them, though he welcomes the visits. “It says that they’re beginning to care about us now.”
He wants them to make changes, starting with the ability to know what’s on the trains that are once again running behind his house.
“They need to set up a website for all of the cities and the states so that we can look to see what’s on the train,” he said.
Vance and Brown are joining Pennsylvania’s two senators, Casey and Fetterman, in calling on the NTSB to update their definition of a “high hazard flammable train” which the one that derailed, with the chemicals it had on it, wasn’t considered. Governor Mike DeWine called that absurd. Vance promised action within the week.
“Not labeling this train high hazardous is one of the reasons why I think it caused problems, it’s one of the reasons why the local community was not aware what was on this train in the first place when it crashed,” said Vance. “Congress can legislate a solution to this problem, and that’s exactly what I’m going to try to do.”
They’re also calling on the NTSB and Federal Railway Authority to look at staffing and inspection issues that may have caught the problem here before the crash. Their letter states workers used to be given three minutes to inspect each railcar. They now get 30 to 45 seconds.
“All of us need to understand — are these inspections done right,” asked Brown. “We’ve had two other derailments in Ohio, one in Sandusky, and Norfolk Southern still hasn’t paid fully to clean that up; one in Steubenville the county south of here. We’re paying attention, we’re watching them.”
Betty Kelly who lives just outside the since-lifted one-mile evacuation zone is hoping homeowners beyond one mile will be given free in-home testing and well water testing.
Kelly said Senators Brown and Vance also need to create legislation that would limit the number of railcars per train that are carrying hazardous chemicals. Kelly believes a new restriction would significantly reduce the potential danger and needed clean-up management in the event of a derailment.
“Why are people outside of the one mile radius not being given attention to," Kelly said. “I don’t think that any train should be carrying 50 cars, 20 cars of that type of chemicals side-by-side in that manner.”
Kelly believes it's still not clear how effective on-going soil, air and water testing will be as the chemical continues to make its way down Leslie Run Creek 80-feet in front of her home, and she worried about the health and safety of her family. She hopes the Ohio EPA will live up to a promise it made on Feb.15 that they will soon be testing the air at her home.
“I have a one-year-old and a two-year-old granddaughter living at my house, and everybody knows with a one-year-old everything goes in their mouth," Kelly said. “And it’s scary because they can come test it tomorrow and it would be safe, but is it going to be safe a month from now, is it going to be safe two months from now.”