EPA Touts ‘Milestone’ in East Palestine Cleanup Efforts

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – More than eight months after burned and crumpled train cars from the Feb. 3 derailment were piled for removal, Debra Shore, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region Five administrator, stood at the site and called it a “major milestone” toward completion of the cleanup effort.

The area between East Taggart Street and the railroad tracks, known as car scrapping area four, is the latest to have the soil removed and test clean from hazardous chemicals. Across the tracks from that location to the north is another cleaned area where there were once pits from the vent and burn. Overall, the EPA has watched Norfolk Southern contractors remove 165,000 tons of soil and 39 million gallons of liquid waste.

Shore said the entire effort is not complete, and as she spoke, excavators and trucks continued to work in another area to the east. Behind her, sheet piling surrounded the area, which, according to Mark Durno, a U.S. EPA emergency response engineer, was placed there to control the groundwater that accumulates there. Durno said efforts in that area were hampered by underground piping that was placed there in the past to pull water away from the ditches near the tracks and funnel it into crocks. Those crocks ended up holding chemicals from the derailment, which may have saved further contamination in the streams and in town.

The latest cleaned-up area was divided into many small grids, and in each area of the grid a soil sample was taken and compared with groundwater standards. The area behind Shore and Durno on Thursday had passed all those tests.

“Typically, in our removal program, we don’t use environmental standards that stringent, but we want to ensure that groundwater is protected for the long haul,” Durno said. “There is going to be a requirement to do monitoring long-term with this response, but getting a complete cleanup in the soil ensures the groundwater will likely be protected for the future.”

(U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Despite another milestone, all cleanup efforts, which started near the North Pleasant Street crossing and extended a half mile almost to Pennsylvania, are not complete.

“This doesn’t mean the cleanup is done or the EPA is going away, but it is another step, a huge step to life returning to normal here in East Palestine,” said Shore, who also pointed to this week’s reopening of Taggart Street, both day and night, as another step.

Even though the excavation is nearing completion, Shore said they are turning their attention toward additional projects. There are 2,500 confirmation samples being taken at the site, just to make certain the chemicals are removed. Norfolk has been ordered by the EPA to continue work in the creeks – Sulphur Run in town and Leslie Run from town into Negley – addressing oily sheen, sediments and recleaning out the inside of the culverts throughout town.

Durno said past industry in East Palestine has contributed to the contamination of Sulphur Run, but he adds there are some areas of contamination concern that can be attributed to the derailment, leading to additional efforts there.

Air monitoring is going to continue, but it will be adjusted as it continues to indicate no concerns of derailment-related chemicals, Shore said.

Some things that will change include adjusting the EPA Welcome Center hours on Nov. 13, making the resources available by appointment only, although the U.S. EPA plans to continue working in the area well into next spring and the Ohio EPA will continue to monitor groundwater for years to come.

Durno said there will be smaller trucks and less truck traffic in future efforts. Clean soil will be hauled in to fill areas where the contaminated soil was removed, and it will be backfilled to grade. Durno said Norfolk Southern will be working with private property owners to determine what restoring property for use will mean, even as monitoring continues.

Excavation at the site of the train derailment. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Additionally, the EPA will turn its attention to vapor intrusion testing to make sure the chemicals didn’t migrate under the buildings, which would prompt more work. If those are found, it could prompt more cleanup and, possibly, an expansion or step-out procedure to additional properties, such as those closer to Taggart Street.

The water flowing into the two large, blue tanks near North Pleasant Street is now testing clean from chemicals. Durno said the water treatment center will continue to treat water from the site until the entire site has been assessed.

Although concerned residents have made numerous requests to U.S. senators for indoor air testing, Shore continues to say the EPA does not believe it is necessary.

“The EPA is an agency that has as its foundational commitment to base ourselves on science and the law, and the science in this case does not suggest that it is wise or appropriate to do that,” Shore said of residential air testing.

From the variety of air monitoring efforts around the site and around town, including mobile units, Shore said the EPA does not see any ongoing pathway for any chemical emissions, which they are not finding outside homes, to get inside homes. Additionally, the volatile compounds of concern can frequently be found in paint or household cleaning products, she said, which would make it impossible to link chemicals that are found to the derailment.

“We take any reports about people experiencing any health conditions very seriously and recommend that any individual go see their primary care provider or the clinic in East Palestine,” Shore said.

Mayor Trent Conaway speaks during a news conference Thursday.

Mayor Trent Conaway said there will be an additional health clinic in Unity, where people uncomfortable with coming into town can go. People are receiving free counseling to help them deal with any mental trauma or anguish after the derailment.

Conaway said he is happy with the cleanup so far, and it is “night and day” from how it was immediately following the derailment. But he is concerned about a few businesses in that area that may not reopen.

“We as a village appreciate all of the hard work of all the different agencies, the federal EPA, the Ohio EPA and all the contractors on site,” Conaway said. “Thank you very much for your professionalism and also getting this mess cleaned up. We didn’t want these events to happen, but they did, and we all worked together as a team. … The [hazardous] materials are out of here, and we just appreciate everybody working hard together.”

Pictured at top: A Norfolk Southern train approaches during a press conference Thursday at the site of the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine as Debra Shore, U.S. EPA Region 5 director, left, speaks to the media. At right is Mark Durno, a U.S. EPA emergency response engineer, and East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway.

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