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East Palestine emails reveal insight into decision to vent and burn toxic rail cars

News 5 Investigators obtained hundreds of Village emails and text messages
East Palestine Train Derailment Smoke Plume
Posted at 5:45 PM, May 15, 2023

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — News 5 Investigators have uncovered emails and text messages detailing the frustrations felt by East Palestine leaders in the days and weeks after the toxic train derailment.

The documents obtained through a public records request provide a timeline of events that lay out some of what the Village was dealing with in early February.

They reveal new insight into how the decision was made to burn off vinyl chloride from derailed train cars.

Records show the East Palestine Fire Chief became incident commander just hours after a Norfolk Southern train derailed.

In the weeks to follow, Chief Keith Drabick is asked several times about the controlled burn — specifically if the East Palestine Fire Department made the decision.

In the documents, the Chief responded saying the vent and burn was discussed at length and at times, the discussion got heated.

Then all parties agreed it was the correct and safest option with the scientific data they had, and unified command gave approval.

The chief said it was first discussed if one or all five cars would be involved, but contractors determined to let all five burn for safety reasons.

Then there was discussion about the response.

In one text thread in late February, the chief expressed frustration with a public health official before a CDC meeting.

He texts: “comparisons to handle exposure like for a regular house fire was beyond unacceptable.”

News 5 Investigators got 20 files from the Village with emails and texts between the fire chief, mayor, and Norfolk Southern, as well as reports from the NTSB and Federal EPA.

One document called “notes, meetings, conversations” gives bullet points for most days in February about the derailment.

Someone wrote in mid-February, “Town hall meeting was a cluster. Residents voiced concerns and got canned responses.”

Another entry days later is about the downtime for rail removal, excavation and replacement, stating it should be negligible as it should have been done at the original cleanup.

In another document, Village leaders express concern about Norfolk Southern’s practices.

One notes, “watching NS contractor taking samples and using bad sampling protocols.”

The Village Utility Superintendent caught a Norfolk Southern contractor using village hydrants to fill up equipment, noting a terrible chance of cross-contamination.

There are also emails from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office asking the village to preserve emails and other documents for its legal action against Norfolk Southern.

The AG’s office filed a federal lawsuit in March.

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