February 23, 2023

EPA Orders Norfolk Southern to Conduct Cleanup from Ohio Train Derailment

EPA announced on Tuesday that it had ordered Norfolk Southern to conduct all cleanup actions associated with the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The order requires the company to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water resources, reimburse EPA for cleaning services to be offered to residents and businesses, participate in public meetings at EPA’s request, and post information online.

The text of EPA’s order (PDF) states that the derailment caused the release of hazardous substances to air and soil from spillage and burning, and to surface water due to run-off from firefighting efforts. To coordinate cleanup efforts, EPA is establishing a unified command structure to manage work undertaken by multiple agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Ohio EPA, the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed outside of East Palestine, a town of about 4,700 residents on the Pennsylvania border. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the train consisted of 149 cars, 20 of which carried hazardous substances. A preliminary report (PDF) released today by NTSB indicates that the derailment appears to have been caused by an overheated bearing on the 23rd car in the train. Among the derailed equipment were 11 cars carrying hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, benzene, and isobutylene. After the train stopped, the crew observed fire and notified a dispatcher. No injuries or fatalities were reported. Approximately 2,000 residents were evacuated.

By Feb. 5 the fire had been brought under control, but authorities became concerned about rising temperature inside one of the cars carrying vinyl chloride, which indicated a possible explosion hazard. On Feb. 6, responders extended the evacuation zone and initiated a controlled venting and burning of more than 115,500 gallons of vinyl chloride held in five cars.

EPA personnel arrived in East Palestine early on Feb. 4 to conduct air monitoring and sampling, according to the agency’s announcement. On Feb. 14, a statement by EPA Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore indicated that EPA air monitoring had not detected any levels of concern and that the agency was working with the Ohio EPA to ensure drinking water wasn’t affected by the accident.

Dashboards showing results of EPA air, water, and soil sampling are available on the agency’s website. Air samples for volatile organic compounds, including vinyl chloride, n-butyl acrylate, and ethyhexyl acrylate, are being collected via sorbent tube, summa canister, and tedlar bag.

Ohio EPA’s website states that “there is no indication of risk to East Palestine Public Water customers” at this time and that “treated drinking water shows no detection of contaminants associated with the derailment.” The agency notes that its data do not apply to private wells and recommends that residents should have their wells tested before using the water.

More information about EPA’s response to the derailment is online.