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U.S. EPA Administrator reaffirms commitment to transparency, public trust in East Palestine

A sign reads, "Welcome to historic East Palestine, Ohio. 'Where you want to be.'"
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border became the center of national attention following the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. The cleanup is ongoing in the town almost a month later.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan is reaffirming his agency’s commitment to holding Norfolk Southern accountable for the train derailment in East Palestine.

Regan met with students from East Palestine Tuesday and asked them to be stewards of the transparency he said his department is committed to.

“What we have to do and what you all can do is just stick with the science and stick with the facts," Regan said.

Regan said he's committed to holding Norfolk Southern accountable for the accident, and he wants them to be transparent throughout the cleanup effort. He said he’s not in a “trusting mood” with the freight rail company.

“Right now, if I had to give them a grade it would be incomplete," Reagan said.

Regan has issued specific orders to Norfolk Southern for them to provide the EPA with a specific work plan and timeline of the cleanup. If Norfolk Southern stops the cleanup process, the EPA would step in, complete the job and charge Norfolk Southern triple the cost, Regan said.

“We’ll start giving them grades after they turn in their homework," Regan said, "and we can start looking at it to be sure they’re telling us the truth.”

The plan will be reviewed thoroughly by the EPA and released in the coming days, Regan said.

Additionally, he said he wants to build back trust between the public and the government agencies working on the scene.

“I believe firmly in transparency. The President is holding me accountable to be very transparent, and I believe government should be transparent. And I think Norfolk Southern should be transparent," Regan said.

On Tuesday a new resource center that will house the U.S. EPA and other officials opened in East Palestine. The EPA Community Welcome Center is open for residents to meet with agency staff to answer questions and learn about resources available to them.

"We are here for the long haul," Regan said.

The EPA is testing for all toxic chemicals and byproducts contained on the derailed train but not for dioxins, despite residents' concerns about the pollutant.

"There are no gaps in the testing," Regan said, although he said he's taking residents' concerns about dioxins very seriously.

After the vent and burn of vinyl chloride, the EPA looked for the primary byproducts of the chemical, which are phosgene and hydrogen chloride, EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore said.

"Dioxin is a secondary byproduct," Shore said. "We didn't find elevated levels of those primary byproducts, which suggested to our scientists that there was not a further risk of dioxin exposure."

Due to residents' concerns, however, Shore said the EPA is exploring what kind of soil sampling might be available for the community.

"That will be folded into the work plan that's being developed for the overall community response and remediation from the derailment," Shore said.

The EPA has brought in a Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer (TAGA) mobile laboratory bus to conduct real time analysis of air quality.

"This means we don't have to send samples away for analysis," Shore said. "We can analyze them right here in the bus as we collect them and provide the results very quickly."

The public will be able to tour the bus in the coming days.

"This state of the art equipment will help us ensure the air is safe to breath in East Palestine," Shore said.

Waste from the derailment site is on its way totwo new facilities. Communities have the right to know if facilities near them will be taking this waste, Regan said. The EPA is working on an alert system to notify the appropriate authorities of this information, so communities can be informed.

Emergency management officials said the contaminated liquid shipped from the train derailment to Vickery Environmental in Sandusky County is 92 to 98% water. Vickery is receiving three to four loads per day on 5,500 gallon tankers only during business hours, EMA Director Lisa Kuelling said.

"There's no vinly chloride coming here," Kuelling said. "Their facility is not built to take straight chemicals. It's meant for groundwater, sewer run off."

The material is tested before shipment and after it arrives at Vickery.

"Vickery Environmental has been well injecting for 40-45 plus years," Kuelling said. "This is what they do on an every day basis, and this is their job. This is their business."

Sandusky County Commissioners said they initially thought they were getting all the chemicals, which created confusion. But Vickery is in good standing with the state and federal EPA and has no known safety issues since the 80s. Kuelling said.

Waste is also being sent to facilities in East Liverpool and Grafton, Ohio, and one facility in Indiana.

Updated: February 28, 2023 at 5:29 PM EST
This story has been updated with additional information about environmental sampling and analysis.
Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.