‘Enormous Progress’ Made in East Palestine, EPA Officials Say

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Double checking that all contaminants are gone from the derailment site in the village, continued monitoring of both private and municipal wells and additional waterway cleanup for Sulphur Run through downtown remain on the list of projects for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Nearly a year after the derailment, Debra Shore, U.S. EPA Region Five administrator, and Mark Durno, supervisory engineer for the EPA who was in charge at the site, gave an update on how far the cleanup has progressed and how far things must yet go.

“We have made enormous progress,” Shore said. “I’m so proud of not only our team, but of the way that we worked with our partners in the city, the state, the county and our other members of the federal family, really, to put the people of East Palestine and the surrounding community at the forefront. And their health and safety has really been our biggest concern.”

She described the current situation as no longer in the emergency response phase, which ended when all of the contaminated soil was removed by the end of October. Millions of gallons of wastewater have been removed, the Norfolk Southern tanks and onsite treatment facility have been winterized and hazardous water will continue to be treated as winter continues so it is no longer considered dangerous and it can be hauled away.

The EPA reported it is about a third of the way through the site characterization and is continuing to make sure contractors through Norfolk Southern have removed all the contaminants before the holes at the site are backfilled. Still, Durno pointed out the railroad has met all requirements at this point, and both the EPA team and Norfolk Southern’s contractors have spent more than 1 million work hours on the site without any serious safety issues despite all the heavy equipment and truck traffic at the site.

Some of the cleanup took longer than Durno anticipated. For instance, the area where the controlled burn occurred had underground conduit and pipes and crock that the chemicals flowed into, which created a deeper area of contamination. Some of the unknowns have been a challenge, Durno said.

Soil, Water and Air

About 950 soil samples have been done and preliminary soil test results have been good, but it may take through spring to collect all the samples from the site where the train derailed, where there was a controlled burn of the cars containing vinyl chloride and where the scrapped train cars were later stored. Additionally, the places where truck traffic came and went from the site must be checked.

Durno said the area where backfilling is happening has been checked thoroughly, and characterization efforts have even included East Palestine City Park, where contaminated water was stored in the beginning. The EPA wanted to ensure nothing was spilled that contaminated the park.

“There have been no red flags,” Durno said, his way of reporting tests are coming back well so far. That has included the recent cleaning of four of five culverts in Sulphur Run, when the EPA monitored to make certain chemicals were not released in the process.

Sheen in Sulphur Run has been attributed by Durno to lube oil in one of the train tankers that derailed. Shore said lube oil is not considered a hazardous waste, but it does fall under the Clean Water Act. Cleanup of the creek will continue this spring, but the submitted plan is being reviewed and not finalized yet.

Overall, work could continue into summer, although no final time line has been determined.

Long-term, Durno and Shore believe the federal EPA and Ohio EPA will continue to monitor municipal wells, sentinel wells, private wells, soil samples and the air, just to make sure nothing changes and no contamination migrates through the soil or groundwater in the future. Durno said it is important to make sure drinking water remains clean and within safety standards both with the municipal and private wells in the area.

“We’re confident that drinking water will remain protected for the foreseeable future, but there’s always a possibility some contaminants might have been missed, and that’s why this long-term monitoring program will be vitally important,” Durno said.

Vapor testing is slated for the Ceramfab facility, the closest business to the site of the derailment. The tests will check to see if contaminants managed to get under the building. Durno said there are four buildings of concern in that area.

Communicating with Residents

Durno said it has been great to get to know some of the residents, many who were friendly with workers. But there were some difficult conversations with some residents as well.

The EPA also will be taking a hard look at what was done and what could have been done better, including how to improve communication with a future community in a similar situation and avoid the spread of misinformation and the fears that were created. The EPA set up the Welcome Center downtown in an attempt to give people a place to come to get some answers to their concerns, hosting 1,000 visits and fielding nearly 1,300 calls. Durno said they held several types of meetings and brought in experts to help alleviate fear.

One such moment was when Durno was one of the speakers at a meeting of county athletic directors who needed to know where things stood before they decided to send their student-athletes to East Palestine for a track meet.

The EPA put out a response newsletter and attended fairs and events.

“How can we improve risk communication in the future, and even more important than that, how do we battle miscommunication in the future,” Durno said.

When chemical odors like the one in Village Hall occurred early on, it only increased fears, and they understood it. But testing for dangerous volatile organic chemicals continues to come back negative and not from the acrylates associated with the hazardous materials from the train.

“That creates a lack of confidence when we’re telling you that air quality is meeting safety standards, but when you smell this chemical, that creates some doubt. So it was important for us to be available to explain why that was,” Durno said.

Since the 179,000 tons of soil and hazardous materials was all removed from the site, work that ended in October, Durno said investigations have not found odors associated with the derailment. But Shore said families that were provided temporary assistance from their homes near the site out of concerns – and still do not feel comfortable – are being helped by Norfolk Southern long-term.

The U.S. EPA’s staff footprint has shrunk, the field office has closed and the unified command center in Columbiana has left, but Shore said there will be an EPA presence in East Palestine going forward, including some brown field remediation unrelated to the derailment and some grant opportunities.

Down the road, the state EPA may take the lead, but Shore predicted the federal EPA will remain involved as oversight.

Health Concerns

Shore said they have heard and continue to hear about residents who feel they have health concerns, and she is advocating for the village to receive federal help for both mental and health monitoring. Several health-based projects have been ongoing, and Durno said he hopes there will be more feedback from the studies that can help them address any further remediation and future health needs.

“All the attention that the one-year anniversary is going to get, it’s probably going to stir up some emotions with some people, especially those who are still heavily concerned. And that’s understandable,” Durno said.

Very high on the list of priorities is making sure everyone gets the help they need, from the first responders who battled the blaze after the derailment to those who still are being affected by the traumatic incident. From health symptoms to the anxiety immediately following the derailment and about the future, there can be many layers to what people are experiencing.

“It’s been occurring to me that this trauma has been laid over personal histories and things that may have happened to people in the past, and it becomes either a trigger or aggravator. And the way it expresses itself physically is just as much a result of the derailment as anything else,” Shore said.

Looking at the history of East Palestine’s industrial past, Durno said you can see the evidence of that legacy of factories in the soil samples below where evidence of the derailment is found, although nothing reaching levels of concern.

Pictured at top: Debra Shore, left, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region Five administrator, and Mark Durno, supervisory engineer for the EPA.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.