After Toxic Train Derailment, Ohio Residents Report Rashes and Worries

Photo by Rebecca Kiger for The Washington Post.
A community member at the town hall meeting in East Palestine.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Nearly two weeks after a massive train derailment and fire unleashed a glut of toxic chemicals on this town of 4,700 people, the nation’s top environmental regulator on Thursday told unnerved, exasperated residents that the Biden administration will make sure the disaster gets cleaned up – and that those responsible for it are held accountable.

“This incident has understandably shaken this community to its core,” Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan said in an afternoon news conference here, acknowledging the lack of trust many residents have expressed about the response to the Feb. 3 disaster.

“The community has questions,” Regan said. “We hear you. We see you, and we will get to the bottom of this.”

He also vowed to use the government’s legal authority to penalize the company behind the spill. “We are absolutely going to hold Norfolk Southern accountable. I promise you that.”

The Ohio derailment has raised questions about the federal government’s oversight of hazardous material shipments, and created a massive political headache for the Biden administration. Elected leaders in both parties have said the White House should have acted more swiftly to the rail disaster.

While the administration has sought to counter that criticism, it has also acknowledged the frustrations of residents about everything from health risks to the regulation of railroads.

Not everyone was comforted by the EPA administrator’s assurances Thursday that their municipal water and air was safe, based on ongoing tests.

“I’m going to East Palestine and will get a glass of water, and I’m going to ask him to drink it because I don’t believe it,” said Dave Anderson, a farmer in nearby New Galilee, Pa. Anderson, a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, said his cattle have had diarrhea since the disaster.

Investigators have said the incident, which led to the spill of toxic hazardous chemicals such as vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, appeared to have been caused by a mechanical issue. The threat of an explosion forced the evacuation of about 1,500 residents, and the “controlled release” of vinyl chloride from unstable rail cars spewed a toxic plume into the air.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday that President Biden had spoken to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) to offer ongoing federal assistance. She said representatives from multiple federal agencies have been on the ground in East Palestine, some since Feb. 4, helping state and local officials respond to the catastrophe.

“They’re working to get to the bottom of what caused the derailment, air quality, collecting soil samples, testing surface and groundwater for any contaminants,” Jean-Pierre said. “And I know we understand the residents are concerned, as they should be, and they have questions.”

Some in the Republican Party’s right wing have used the incident to chastise the Biden administration and, in particular, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. But more criticism was leveled Thursday from a member of the president’s own party.

“It is unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up,” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said in a statement Thursday afternoon, urging the White House to “provide a complete picture of the damage and a comprehensive plan to ensure the community is supported in the weeks, months and years to come, and this sort of accident never happens again.”

The White House said the president has “absolute confidence” in Buttigieg, and underscored that Biden has directed multiple arms of the federal government to help, from transportation investigators studying the cause of the accident to environmental scientists monitoring air and water quality to public health experts working to insure people can safely return to their homes.

Political finger-pointing aside, elected officials of every stripe have acknowledged the fear, uncertainty and anger rippling through this Ohio town.

Concern about air pollution from the Norfolk Southern train’s wrecked rail cars has given way to long-term worries about contamination of the water and soil in East Palestine and beyond. Some locals say they are suffering headaches and rashes and are not comforted by what they see as a lack of solid answers from authorities.

At a town hall meeting Wednesday night, residents left with few answers and palpable anxiety.

“We don’t know what to think,” said Michele Parker, who lives about half a mile from the derailment site, “so therefore we don’t know what to do.”

Residents such as Parker this week are grappling with whiplash: State officials advised them to drink bottled water on Tuesday, but state and federal officials have also said testing shows the municipal water supply is safe. They can smell pungent odors, but authorities say harmful levels of chemicals have not been detected in the air.

Even as residents report nausea, dizziness, headaches and other ailments, a spokesman for DeWine told The Washington Post on Thursday that no doctors who have seen patients have identified the chemical release as a cause for people’s symptoms. Instead, “there’s usually another explanation for those symptoms,” such as colds and flu, spokesman Dan Tierney said.

Residents who have reported various symptoms do note blame regular colds. Anderson, the Pennsylvania farmer, said he and his family experienced a burning sensation in the mouth, lips and tongue starting the day after the crash, as well as tongue swelling, runny nose and watery eyes. Some of the symptoms have diminished but haven’t completely gone away.

“Our tongues still feel like they have been scalded – like if you drank something that was too hot,” Anderson said.

A massive cleanup is underway around the tracks in East Palestine, a town of about 4,700 that sits on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, and the state is faced with developing long-term plans to track potential contamination.

On Thursday, Regan continued to reassure residents. He asked people to have faith in the government’s recommendations.

“We know that there is a lack of trust,” Regan said told reporters. “If we say that the water is safe and the air is safe, we believe it, because we’ve tested it and the data shows it.”

Yet other residents wonder: Will their homes now be worthless? Will the contamination leach and spread until it reaches drinking water or agricultural soil?

“Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or the water?” one woman shouted at town and state leaders gathered Wednesday night.

“That is a legitimate question,” responded Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio).

Norfolk Southern backed out of the town hall, citing safety concerns, but the rail company’s chief executive, Alan H. Shaw, has pledged to clean up the contamination.

“I’m just as frustrated as you guys,” East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway told the crowd.

Norfolk Southern published an “open letter” to residents from Shaw on Thursday, in which he pledged to “stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety” and help the community recover. “I know there are still a lot of questions without answers. I know you’re tired. I know you’re worried. We will not let you down,” Shaw wrote.

Photo by Rebecca Kiger for The Washington Post.
Bruce Vanderhoffin, who is the director of the Ohio Department of Health, answers questions posed by community members at the town hall meeting in East Palestine.

Multiple agencies within the Department of Transportation have been working to support the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the derailment.

Two members of an investigatory team from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration were in East Palestine between Feb. 3 and 14, with one expected to return next week, according to the department. Staffers from the Federal Railroad Administration also visited the site early on and are expected to return next week.

While it is the NTSB’s responsibility to determine the root cause of the derailment and to issue recommendations to improve safety in the future, the Federal Railroad Administration has the power to take enforcement actions, including issuing fines, if it finds any existing rules were broken.

Before the derailment in Ohio, labor unions and lawmakers had been raising concerns about safety in the industry as it has adopted a model known as “precision scheduled railroading.” In recent years, freight trains have gotten longer and railroads have been exploring the use of single crew members, rather than teams of two.

The top regulatory priority for the Federal Railroad Administration has been setting standards for the minimum size of crews – a push that has been opposed by the railroad industry, including Norfolk Southern, which referred questions on the proposal to the Association of American Railroads, a trade group.

More federal help was set to arrive in East Palestine, according to the office of DeWine, who requested assistance in a conversation with White House officials Thursday. That came two days after the governor said he had not seen a need to request more federal aid.

The state is not eligible for assistance from FEMA under federal law because of the nature of the disaster, including a lack of property damage, said Tierney, DeWine’s spokesman. That means DeWine can’t make an emergency declaration, as governors do after natural disasters.

Teams from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department plan to help examine people who report symptoms, Tierney said.

Johnson and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said they are examining federal regulations for trains carrying hazardous chemicals. Brown said he would push for better labeling of trains carrying hazardous materials, which he said may require a change in federal law.

Several class-action lawsuits filed by residents against Norfolk Southern demand money and medical monitoring for residents. One lawsuit, filed Wednesday, alleged that the company’s efforts to clean up the disaster “instead worsened the situation.”

Norfolk Southern has reimbursed residents for evacuation costs and set up a $1 million fund, though the company had no details about how that money would be distributed. Residents have worried that accepting payments could affect their ability to sue the rail company later; a spokesman told The Washington Post that the payments are “not a settlement of any future claim.”

The railway is also handing out unlimited bottled water to residents, funding in-home air testing and providing some air purifiers. But concerns about the long-term impacts continue to mount.

Aaron Bragg, who works as a risk engineering specialist in the chemical industry, spent Wednesday afternoon alerting neighbors to his worries about contamination. Bragg, who lives in nearby New Waterford, Ohio, and owns a rental property near the derailment, is also worried about what the pollution will mean for the town’s economic viability.

“Am I going to be able to sell that?” he asked, pointing to his small cottage on East Clark Street. “No. Norfolk Southern needs to just level this whole area.”