The Day

After train derailment, residents report symptoms, worries


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.

 ?? REBECCA KIGER/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? A community member at the town hall meeting in East Palestine, Ohio.
REBECCA KIGER/THE WASHINGTON POST A community member at the town hall meeting in East Palestine, Ohio.

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