Restoration Work in East Palestine Could Be Finished by Summer

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – The Monday after the Feb. 3, 2023, train derailment in the village, Anne Vogel, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, flew over the scene with Gov. Mike DeWine while railcars still burned below.

Although she had been on the job only about a month when the derailment happened, seasoned veterans in her department told her this was the worst they had seen, Vogel admits.

Speaking to reporters in East Palestine’s City Park on Wednesday, she said the situation she saw below was scary, but things have come a long way. She can see cleanup and restoration work potentially completed sometime this summer.

“A year is a long time, and it’s been a lot of work. But it’s also pretty remarkable what has happened here,” Vogel said.

The state EPA worked with the U.S. EPA to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for cleaning up the disaster, while scientists in both organizations reviewed every plan put forward. Vogel said the cleanup has progressed from the removal in the fall to the current characterization phase and restoration phase.

“The point of a removal action is that you do remove the contamination from town so this doesn’t become a superfund site,” Vogel said. “This is not going to be a long-term contaminated town. It’s just not. It was a contained area. We know exactly what was spilled and in what quantities, and we know how to clean it up. This is what we do.”

After water no longer needs to be collected and treated and the ditches are reopened at the derailment site, surface water will be allowed to flow from the currently contained site. Vogel said that will not happen until this summer and when testing shows it is safe for the waterways, including nearby Sulphur Run and Leslie Run further downstream. 

There were fish and other wildlife returning to Leslie Run last summer, and Vogel believes that will continue this summer. She looks forward to finding aquatic wildlife numbers that compare with those the state collected in 2022.

But even as the cleanup and restoration work conclude this year, testing of the water and monitoring of wells near the derailment will continue as long as it is needed.

“We take the data that we have and we make the next decision based on the data,” Vogel said, noting the Ohio EPA will continue to monitor surface water, water wells and streams in the area. “So if that is five years, 10 years, 20 years … it’s not months; it’s years.”

The Ohio EPA is involved in looking at sheen in Sulphur Run from an oil product from the derailment, and a work plan is being created to address that this year. Still, Vogel said the Ohio EPA is not finding chemicals of concern in the streams or in the drinking water. Data is not showing vinyl chloride in the water or sediment of the streams. More than 1,000 private well tests conducted by the Columbiana County Health Department have not found any contamination either.

Other Ohio agencies have been involved in providing additional assurances of safety to residents and those who come into town. Farm fields have been tested through partners of the Ohio Department of Agriculture and Ohio State. The Ohio Department of Health has worked with East Liverpool City Hospital’s clinic that was set up to monitor the health of residents, including those who continue to say they have health concerns. The Ohio Department of Development provided grant money to support local businesses recovering from the loss of business.

Vogel said the state is not going anywhere, and so many state agencies have come together with local officials to set East Palestine up for success as it recovers.

Eventually, there will be time to review what happened and the response by all the agencies, but at this point, Vogel said she would not change anything.

“This was a significant incident. I would never downplay what happened here. Certainly [it] was one of the largest responses Ohio EPA has ever had,” she said. “I’m incredibly proud of the work of the Ohio EPA and how quickly we responded that night and got containment in place immediately to start containing that spill.”

Pictured at top: Anne Vogel, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.