Health Clinic Opens; Railroad Put on Notice

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – On the same day the federal EPA and the governors of both states directly impacted by the East Palestine derailment spoke on making sure the Norfolk Southern railroad satisfactorily completes the cleanup efforts, a community medical clinic began operating.

Columbiana County Health Commissioner Wes Vins emphasized Tuesday that the clinic is for anyone living or working within the East Palestine ZIP code.

Of immediate concern, Vins said, are those who were in that area the night of the derailment and before the EPA had air quality checks in place, including first responders from many departments who came to the scene, journalists and residents living or near the site in those early hours.

“It’s a screening tool. It’s open. Come in, talk to us,” Vins said. “We’re going to go through a very prescriptive process to try to understand your situation, and then try to help you navigate what your next step is. If we’ve got to call a toxicologist, if we’ve got to get you hooked up with health care, if we’ve got to get you a primary care doctor, we’re going to help you do that.”

Vins said it comes down to individual exposure, noting at this time people know that the air and water quality are good. There are concerns about the soil, which is being addressed.

Residents and business owners in the area continue to be concerned when the soil is moved and it generates odor or they are near Sulphur Run, where contaminants are being addressed and there is still an odor. EPA authorities have indicated that a person can smell the odors at levels that are not dangerous.

When people first arrived on the scene Feb. 3, there was no air monitoring, and health officials want to make sure no one was adversely affected on that first night.

“We need to be conscious and think about what is our real exposure,” Vins said.

Going forward, Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel said the agency will continue to test the water on a weekly basis, in addition to the water testing being done by local authorities.

During a press conference Tuesday, U.S. Rep Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, indicated it will be up to the residents of East Palestine to determine what the finish line is, when they feel safe and are satisfied with the cleanup efforts and when they feel they can all return to normal life.

“I’m feeling confident in the process,” Johnson said following Tuesday’s press conference. “We have a long way to go to reassure this community, and that’s an ongoing process.”

Strong Words

In the interim, U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Gov. Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro had some strong words for Norfolk Southern and the company’s efforts to make things right for the residents of the village.

Regan said while the actions of first responders saved every person, this tragedy took away the community’s sense of comfort.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan speaks during a news conference in East Palestine on Tuesday. (AP Photo | Matt Freed)

“I realize no matter how much data we collect and provide, it will not be enough to completely reassure everyone,” Regan said. “It may not be enough to completely reassure everyone. It may not be enough to restore the sense of safety and security that this community once had. But we’re going to work together day-by-day to make sure that this community feels at home again.”

Regan said the EPA is ordering Norfolk Southern to conduct all necessary actions to clean up, and there will be an extensive list, including safely removing all contaminated water and soil, to EPA specifications. The EPA will provide cleaning services for homes and businesses at the expense of Norfolk Southern. Additionally, Regan vowed that Norfolk Southern will attend public hearings and share information with the public.

Residents were angered when railroad representatives did not attend a public hearing to answer their questions in the week following the derailment.

“To ensure that this is done in a way that will leave this community whole again, the EPA will review and approve Norfolk Southern’s work plan with state and local government, too,” Regan said. “The work plan will outline every single necessary step to clean up the environmental damage caused by the derailment, and I can assure you that no details will be overlooked.”

Should the railroad not complete the tasks up to standards, Regan said the EPA will step in and do the work themselves and charge Norfolk Southern triple the cost.

Shapiro said the fact that Regan and the federal government are going to force Norfolk Southern to be accountable demonstrates real leadership.

“It is my view that Norfolk Southern was not going to do this out of the kindness of their own heart. There is not a lot of goodness in there,” the Pennsylvania governor said. “They needed to be compelled to act, and that is exactly what Administrator Regan and the federal government, combined with the authorities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, are taking steps to do, and that is to hold them accountable.”

Shapiro indicated that Norfolk Southern did not work well with the agencies and officials responding to the disaster in the early days of the derailment, and he vowed to keep them accountable going forward.

“What the good people of Pennsylvania and Ohio deserve now is real accountability,” Shapiro said. “This is an important step that will give our communities confidence that they will not be on the hook for the cleanup that was made at the hands of a multibillion dollar company’s mess. In the face of Norfolk Southern’s arrogance and incompetence, I want you to know that we are fighting back.”

Shapiro said he understands people are worried about their families, their health and their water, but the governor’s office will be with them and provide them with the information they need to stay safe. He also urged the continuation of bipartisan efforts for both Pennsylvania and Ohio residents affected by the derailment.

Looking Ahead

Long-term, DeWine said he would like to see H2Ohio, the program that helps with clean water solutions throughout the state, help to make sure that anyone with a well who wants to be on city water has the means to do so.

He reiterated that the Ohio Legislature needs to look at regulations that would require trains such as the one that derailed in East Palestine to be considered hazardous, and the need for the railroad to notify the state and local communities before they come into town.

As of Tuesday, DeWine said the latest figures show 4,588 cubic yards of soil and 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water have been removed, with work continuing. He added that Norfolk Southern will be forced to remove the soil underneath the new tracks the railroad laid down to swiftly get trains running again only two days after the controlled detonation.

As DeWine speaks to citizens and Mayor Trent Conaway, he said he keeps hearing the one request is, “Don’t leave us.”

“The concern, the very legitimate concern, is that when all the TV cameras are gone, when the reporters are gone and the world turns to something else, the community is going to be left here to handle this problem all on their own,” DeWine said. “Let me just say we are making a public commitment again today. We will not leave them. We will stay here, we will continue to test. We will continue to do what needs to be done in the weeks and the months and the years as we go forward.”

The announcements made Tuesday by Regan, DeWine and Shapiro were made in a room full of national media in the East Palestine City Park’s community center.

Conaway said while there has been an amazing media response, he hopes that the community center room soon will be returned to use for picnics. To him, justice would be returning East Palestine to where it was before the derailment.

“We’re a quiet little town of 4,700,” Conaway said. “I really hope something good can come out of this. I know that sounds odd with what has transpired in the last few weeks. But our goal is that our town comes out better, and without the help of the EPA and state governments, that isn’t going to happen.”

Pictured at top: First Church of Christ, the site of a medical clinic that was set up in East Palestine.

Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.