Upset Ohio residents pack town hall meeting seeking answers over train derailment

FEBRUARY 14: Scenes from the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. (Photo by Rebecca Kiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Residents of the Ohio village upended by a freight train derailment packed a school gym to seek answers about whether they were safe from toxic chemicals that spilled or were burned off.

Hundreds of worried people gathered Wednesday in East Palestine, near the Pennsylvania state line, to hear state officials insist yet again that testing shows local air is safe to breathe so far and promise that air and water monitoring would continue.

With the community in the national spotlight, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan is slated to visit Thursday to assess the ongoing response and hear from impacted residents.

Those attending Wednesday's informational session, which was originally billed as a town hall meeting, had many questions about health hazards, and they demanded more transparency from railroad operator Norfolk Southern, which did not attend, citing safety concerns for its staff.

"They just danced around the questions a lot," said Danielle Deal, who lives a few miles from the derailment site. "Norfolk needed to be here."

In a statement, Norfolk Southern said it didn't attend alongside local, state and federal officials because of a "growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event."

Deal called that a "copout" and noted the seriousness of the incident.

Deal and her two children left home to stay with her mother, 13 miles away "and we could still see the mushroom cloud, plain as day," she said.

Nearly two weeks after the derailment, people in the area have many concerns about the huge plumes of smoke they saw, persisting odors, risks to pets and wild animals, potential effects on drinking water and what's happening with the cleanup.

Even as school resumed and trains were rolling again, people were worried.

"Why are they being hush-hush?" Kathy Dyke said of the railroad. "They’re not out here supporting, they’re not out here answering questions. For three days we didn’t even know what was on the train."

"I have three grandbabies," she said. "Are they going to grow up here in five years and have cancer? So those are all factors that play on my mind."

A sign welcomes visitors to the town of East Palestine on Feb. 14, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio. (Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)

A sign welcomes visitors to the town of East Palestine on Feb. 14, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio. (Photo by Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)

In and around East Palestine, residents said they wanted assistance navigating the financial help the railroad has offered hundreds of families who evacuated, and they want to know whether it will be held responsible for what happened.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost advised Norfolk Southern on Wednesday that his office is considering legal action against the rail operator.

"The pollution, which continues to contaminate the area around East Palestine, created a nuisance, damage to natural resources and caused environmental harm," Yost said in a letter to the company.

The state's Environmental Protection Agency said the latest tests show five wells supplying the village's drinking water are free from contaminants. But the EPA also recommends testing for private water wells because they are closer to the surface.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates that spilled contaminants affected more than 7 miles (11.2 kilometers) of streams and killed some 3,500 fish, mostly small ones such as minnows and darters.

There have been anecdotal reports that pets or livestock have been sickened. No related animal deaths have been confirmed, state officials said, but that confirmation would require necropsies and lab work to determine the connection to the incident.

Norfolk Southern announced Tuesday that it is creating a $1 million fund to help the community of some 4,700 people while continuing remediation work, including removing spilled contaminants from the ground and streams and monitoring air quality.

It also will expand how many residents can be reimbursed for their evacuation costs, covering the entire village and surrounding area.

"We will be judged by our actions," Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw said in a statement that the company is "cleaning up the site in an environmentally responsible way."

No one was injured when about 50 cars derailed in a fiery, mangled mess on the outskirts of East Palestine on Feb. 3. As fears grew about a potential explosion, officials seeking to avoid an uncontrolled blast had the area evacuated and opted to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars, sending flames and black smoke billowing into the sky again.

A mechanical issue with a rail car axle is suspected to be the cause of the derailment, and the National Transportation Safety Board said it has a video appearing to show a wheel bearing overheating just beforehand. The NTSB said it expects its preliminary report in about two weeks.

Misinformation and exaggerations spread online, and state and federal officials have repeatedly offered assurances that air monitoring hasn't detected any remaining concerns. Even low levels of contaminants that aren’t considered hazardous can create lingering odors or symptoms such as headaches, Ohio’s health director said Tuesday.

Precautions also are being taken to ensure contaminants that reached the Ohio River don't make it into drinking water.