‘Two Bad Options’ – DeWine Says of Controlled Release Decision

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Gov. Mike DeWine said he learned from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio on Tuesday that the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in East Palestine 10 days ago was not considered a high hazardous material train.

“Frankly, if this is true – and I’m told it’s true – this is absurd, and we need to look at this, and Congress needs to take a look at how these things are handled,” DeWine said. “We should know when we have trains carrying hazardous material that are traveling through the state of Ohio.”

The East Palestine community is starting to see a lot of attention from commentators on both sides of the political divide.

National political news outlets ranging from liberal MSNBC to conservative Fox News all brought up concerns or interviewed area residents on various talk and opinion shows Monday night, with both networks stoking fears that East Palestine is doomed or will never be normal again. Chris Hayes and Joy Reid on MSNBC, as well as Sean Hannity, Jesse Watters and Tucker Carlson on Fox News, showed the footage from both the original derailment and black plume from four days later.

Some chastised Norfolk Southern officials and the official response, which has included the monitoring by the U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA, accusing them of not telling residents the entire story.

Political leaders are also taking turns examining the situation and criticizing those involved.

During his press conference Tuesday, DeWine discussed in detail what went into the decision for the controlled release, calling that and the other option to wait for the railcar to explode “two bad options.” He said the decision for the controlled release was the option Norfolk Southern advocated, but it was done in conjunction with modeling and advice from the Ohio National Guard and the U.S. Defense Department.

DeWine said people were not allowed back in until testing indicated the air quality was at the same level it was before the train derailment.

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, issued a statement Tuesday saying he believes Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw should reconsider criteria for a decision to only reimburse those within the 1-mile evacuation perimeter, and not all residents of East Palestine, many of whom evacuated out of an abundance of caution.

Johnson was the latest to visit the site Monday, following two visits from DeWine last week. Ohio Senate Democratic Caucus members, along with newly elected state Rep. Lauren McNally of Youngstown, D-59th, planned to meet today with stakeholders from the East Palestine area to discuss environmental and agricultural groups on the state, federal and nonprofit levels.

Some of the concerns stem from a sternly worded letter dated Feb. 10 to Norfolk Southern from the U.S. EPA, which detailed the derailment on Feb. 3 and listed chemicals the train was carrying. Some of those had not been mentioned during earlier press conferences that focused on the vinyl chloride, which was highly explosive and the reason for the controlled detonation Feb. 6. The letter pointed out that there was an intentional breach of five rail cars, which allowed the vinyl chloride to drain into a trench.

The other chemicals listed in the letter were ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and butyl acrylate. Some have reported links to cancer.

Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern and the EPA remain in town. City officials continue to assure residents that the drinking water remains safe. Phone numbers continue to be distributed where residents can get their houses checked, their well water monitored or just talk with a toxicologist about their concerns.

East Palestine City Park remains a staging area for Norfolk Southern crews, which continue to work on cleanup from the derailment. DeWine reported Tuesday that Norfolk Southern’s CEO has assured him the railroad will not leave East Palestine until everything is cleaned up.

On Monday, the railway announced it has distributed more than $1 million combined to 700 families at the Family Assistance Center at the Abundant Life Church in New Waterford to help cover the costs related to the evacuation of residents, such as hotels and food, mostly in a 1-mile area surrounding the site.

Additionally, the railway has announced it has provided more than 100 air purifiers for residents to use in their homes and for the municipal building that straddles Sulfur Run, where crews working with the Ohio EPA are mitigating chemicals from the spill. The railroad helped fund the cleaning and air monitoring of the schools before children returned to class Monday. Norfolk Southern has announced a charitable fund to support the community and a $25,000 donation to the Ohio Red Cross, which set up a shelter immediately following the derailment.

Will it all be enough to compensate for the losses of a village of under 5,000 people? What will be the long-term damage or health effects, if any?

Even before the first trains rattled through town on the evening of Feb. 8 as the evacuation order was lifted, law firms – both local and large scale – were lining up to litigate compensation and get answers to those questions.

On Tuesday, the director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported it is monitoring Sulfur Run, which flows into Leslie Run; Bull Creek; the North Fork of Beaver Creek; Beaver Creek, a designated scenic river; and into the Ohio River. About 3,500 dead fish representing 12 different species were found. As of yet, it is not known if any hellbenders, which are federal and state endangered salamanders, were affected.

Tiffany Kavalec, the division chief of surface water at the Ohio EPA, admitted Sulfur Run in downtown has been contaminated and there is a plume of fire combustion materials floating down the Ohio River, which she said is being monitored. The plume is nearing Huntington, W. Va., and traveling a mile a day. Kavalec said towns and water departments getting their water from the river have the ability to both shut off the intakes to their water supplies as it passes and to treat their water to counteract it. Additionally, she noted the Ohio River tends to dilute chemicals quickly.

Kurt Kollar of the Ohio EPA also detailed efforts in the East Palestine area to mitigate issues in Sulfur Run and Leslie Run, as well as to test soil samples along the tracks, where the chemicals were drained or leaked during the derailment. According to Kollar, crews continue to work on the site along the tracks, stopping when trains come through and trains are moving more slowly through that area. Large, blue, sealed containers in the park are for holding contaminated water pumped from the creek. But he did not say where the soil being taken from trenches from North Pleasant Street to the derailment is being hauled away to.

Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health, urged residents with wells to call 330 849 3919 to have their water tested at no cost and use bottled water until the results come back. He explained that the chemicals in question are volatile organic compounds, which most people can be around at low levels without feeling health effects.

Although Vanderhoff admits there is an odor still in the air, the smell of these chemicals is present even when the levels in the air are safe, he said.

If your pet or livestock should become ill or die, the state director of agriculture said the department is working with veterinarians in the area.

In the end, “Norfolk Southern is responsible for this problem,” DeWine said. “We fully expect them to live up to what the CEO committed to me, and that is that they will pay for everything. If they don’t, we have an attorney general and we will file a lawsuit. They’re responsible for this. They did it. The impact on this community is huge, not just the physical problem that might be caused, but the inconvenience, the terror – many, many things.”

DeWine said his objective is to get this cleaned up as soon as possible and continue to review what is happening and what tests are showing to build people’s confidence. When asked if he would go back there to live if his home was in the evacuation zone, DeWine said he would drink bottled water and would continue to find out what the air tests showed, being alert and concerned. But he would be back in his house.

“I understand people’s skepticism,” DeWine said. “I understand their anger. If I lived in the community, I would be angry too. The railroad caused this problem, and they will be held accountable.”

Pictured at top: A black plume rises over East Palestine as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains on Feb. 6, 2023. (AP Photo | Gene J. Puskar)

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.