He said stories that he has heard of contractors hired by Norfolk Southern burying contaminated soil beneath new rail lines are especially troubling.
“You cannot dig out and clean up an area if there are railroad tracks, and there are trains going over it,” he said. “So the fact that they replaced the rails, I think, suggests that they are much more focused on reopening the railway than cleaning up the community. That’s a big, big problem.”
This was Vance’s first visit since the massive derailment and fire nearly two weeks ago. He said he agrees with Governor Mike DeWine in not requesting a federal disaster declaration just yet — insisting that it’s up to the railroad to pay bills related to the cleanup, not taxpayers.
“Right now — and this is very important — when somebody causes a problem, they have an obligation to fix it, and Norfolk Southern is the one that caused this problem,” he said.
Vance said there are a lot of questions as to whether contaminated soil is being cleaned up properly and whether accurate tests are being done for air and water quality in the area.
He said so far, he hasn’t received a lot of answers as to what level of contamination is really harmful.
“Quite frankly, I’m very frustrated with the CDC. I’ve been going back and forth with them for a few days, asking them, ‘What are the acceptable levels of contamination here before this becomes endangering to human health?'” he said. “We have not yet gotten a good answer, and it’s something we’re going to keep hammering on in Washington and outside of Washington within the next couple of weeks, if we have to. But hopefully, we can get a good answer before then.”
In the meantime, Vance urges residents in the area to have their water systems tested now and in the future to determine if they’ve been polluted, promising to keep after the railroad to ensure the cleanup is done properly.
U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown were also in East Palestine on Thursday. Regan said he wanted to hear from residents in their homes, visit the site of the derailment, and meet with emergency responders from the state.