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'We will get to the bottom of this' — U.S. EPA administrator addresses resident concerns in East Palestine

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Posted at 4:58 PM, Feb 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-16 18:44:22-05

EPA Administrator Michael Regan, several congressional representatives and Ohio officials reassured East Palestine residents on Thursday that all air and municipal water quality testing so far has not detected any chemicals at levels of concern and encouraged any resident experiencing unusual symptoms to seek out a primary care physician and report their maladies to a local, county or state health department.

Watch full video from Thursday's news conference video below:

Regan arrived in East Palestine on Thursday morning and began by touring the home of one resident.

“We hear you, and we understand why there is anxiety,” Regan said to the press assembled there. “And I am here today on the ground to continue to take an assessment and to continue to lead the agency in partnering with the state on this recovery.”

Regan said the EPA was prepared for the decision to do a controlled burn of the vinyl chloride, one of the primary toxic chemicals of concern that was aboard the Norfolk Southern train that derailed and released a toxic plume over the town.

“The controlled burn decision was made by both the governors of Pennsylvania and Ohio in consultation with how EPA could respond to that in terms of monitoring the air and the impacts. And so the state made a decision, and we were prepared for that decision,” Regan said.

News 5’s Tara Morgan asked if the scope of testing for toxic chemicals will go beyond the initial one-mile radius that was of highest safety concern following the derailment and controlled burn.

“The state is leading the testing on the water quality. What I can tell you is we have mobilized the highest technology for air quality. We've mobilized our airplanes. We've mobilized mobile sources. We have stationary air monitoring as well. And we have done indoor air quality monitoring for over 500 homes,” Regan said. ”The science will dictate how far it spans out. But we are trusting the science, but we believe that we are looking at the proper radius to ensure that we'll protect the public.”

At about 2:30 p.m., Regan was joined by Ohio’s U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, who represents the East Palestine Area, and Ohio EPA Director Ann Vogel, for a formal news conference.

“Nearly two weeks ago, the residents of East Palestine experienced a terrible incident with the derailment of train cars carrying hazardous substances. This incident has understandably shaken this community to its core, forcing families to temporarily leave their homes, worry about their health and safety of their children, and even question the information that they are receiving from all of us,” Regan said. The community has questions, and they deserve answers. I want the community to know that we hear you, we see you, and that we will get to the bottom of this.”

Regan said that President Biden is prepared to provide anything that Gov. Mike DeWine and the state of Ohio need.

“We are going to get through this as a team, and at the same time, we are absolutely going to hold Norfolk Southern accountable. And I can promise you that,” Regan said.

Regan said that EPA personnel have been on site from the beginning and are using advanced testing from a plane, a mobile laboratory and the screening of more than 480 homes. No detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride have been identified, he said.

“We're continuing to make those screenings available to any resident that wants to have their indoor air tested,” Regan said. “We're also continuing to conduct 24/7 air monitoring to ensure the health and safety of all residents as it relates to water.”

News 5’s Tara Morgan has heard concerns from residents about residue on surfaces from the spill and controlled burn. She asked Regan whether any residue or surface testing is being done. Regan deferred to Ohio EPA Director Ann Vogel.

"That testing is not currently being done in terms of surface testing by the state of Ohio,” she said. “I think it's a possibility. I know that there are some toxicologists who are doing it privately, and I've heard about that…We haven't found residue where we've been looking. The nature of the controlled release was such that those materials combusted and dissipated into the air. But certainly, it's an option for homeowners to those surfaces.”

Brown urged every resident coming back to their homes to ask for testing to be done and said that so far, Norfolk Southern has paid for those tests, and he expects them to continue.

Brown said that he has been in contact with the NTSB, the federal EPA, the CDC and the federal rail authority to ensure these agencies are coordinating with one another, in addition to sending a bi-partisan letter along with U.S. Senator J.D. Vance, and Pennsylvania senators Bob Casey and John Fetterman to ensure these agencies are doing the right thing, and that they will be holding Norfolk Southern accountable.

“That means accountable for the chance for people to move back in, accountable for all the cleanup that will take weeks, I don't know how long, but at least weeks to assure people that the water is safe, that the air is safe, and the soil is safe for their children, for the 4,000-plus residents here. And make sure Norfolk Southern does what it says it's going to do — what it promised,” Brown said.

Brown said he is also watching Norfolk Southern to ensure they are not forcing residents to give up their legal rights to accept money given to them.

Reimbursement for East Palestine evacuation could hinder future legal claims

“There is no justification ever for that,” he said. “These are people that are struggling, that some have lost their jobs, at least temporarily. Others have lost a great deal because they're away from home.”

Both Brown and Johnson said they are looking into why the Norfolk Southern train was not designated as carrying "high hazardous materials," and said federal law might need to change.

“That car should be labeled with those chemicals,” Brown said. “We're going to try to get FRA or NTSB to do it, but we think we might need a change in federal law.”

Brown said that such a designation could have meant that those cars may have been more closely monitored, and suggested that Norfolk Southern, which saw major dividends and performed stock buybacks recently, should pay more attention to the upkeep of the rails.

“Suffice to say that when we get through that analysis and we get the report back, when we figure out how that process works, obviously the more volatile, the more dangerous the hazardous material on the train is, it's going to guide — it's going to determine the kinds of parameters that the train is operated by,” Johnson said. “So that's going to be a work in progress. But we'll keep you posted.”

Regan was pressed by a reporter about reports from residents who are still experiencing health issues, including coughing up blood, issues breathing and rashes.

“For those who are experiencing some sort of adverse health reaction, we ask that they please seek medical attention,” Regan said. “Also, we ask that they contact the local and state health agencies because we want that information. We want to hear from people.”

Regan said that while he trusts the testing that has shown no toxic chemicals in the air or municipal water supply so far, he does want to hear any reports from residents experiencing issues.

“But that is not to discount any experience that any resident is having. So if they having those experiences, please seek medical help and please notify local health agencies,” he said.

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