WASHINGTON D.C. (WKBN) – Friday, the federal government gave an update on their multi-agency response to the train derailment and its aftermath in East Palestine. Representatives from federal agencies also outlined future plans for the clean-up, holding Norfolk Southern accountable and additional support from the feds that is on the way.

Representatives from multiple federal agencies held a briefing on background Friday. News agencies are not allowed to quote those officials or broadcast their quotes but there are still some key takeaways

On Monday, the CDC and Department of Health and Human Services will deploy a team of toxicologists and medical personnel to administer tests. They will conduct assessments of chemical exposure– known as ACE tests –to measure the impact of the chemical release on the public. An ACE investigation was similarly conducted after the 2012 derailment of a train in New Jersey that was carrying Vinyl Chloride.

The Ohio EPA and US EPA are overseeing Norfolk Southern’s soil cleanup. Soil testing includes areas of the crash site and immediately surrounding it. The EPA says it does plan to expand their soil testing, by request.

During a press conference on Friday, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine addressed concerns over contaminated soil buried underneath the new railroad track. He said he’s committed to ensuring nothing is left behind.

“If there is dirt under the track, if they laid track on top of contaminated [soil], we’re going to insist that that be dealt with,” Governor DeWine said.

In a February 10 letter to Norfolk Southern, the EPA notified the company it was responsible for cleanup. The railroad agreed to pay for response costs. The EPA says the Comprehensive Environmental Remediation Compensation and Liability Act gives it full authority in this situation.

The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the cause of the derailment. A representative with the Federal Railroad Administration will be in East Palestine next week. They have been looking into rail infrastructure and if Norfolk Southern was following proper staffing and safety regulations. Once the investigation by NTSB is finished, the FRA will make safety recommendations to improve rail safety.

According to a representative from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, their agency oversees the packaging of 1.2 million shipments of hazardous material around the United States every day. Approximately one in 10 shipments in the US contain hazardous material. The derailed train was carrying 20 cars of hazardous material but wasn’t officially labeled as such, according to Governor Mike DeWine.

Experts say improving rail safety is easiest at a time like this, when there is robust public interest for change and the fastest way to bring about change is for Congress to act. During the Trump administration, safety regulations for Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes were rolled back. A senior federal transportation official says railroad companies have strongly opposed creating the high hazard flammable train definition and additional requirements for those trains.

Reporters were given a chance to ask questions of the agency leadership that were on that call earlier. One question was: why did it take so long for the Federal Government to address the public about the train derailment? A representative with the EPA said they didn’t want the presence of leadership to detract from the work first responders are doing.

According to a press release from earlier Friday, the Biden-Harris administration is also providing federal resources in the wake of the East Palestine train derailment.

In response to Governor DeWine’s and the Ohio congressional delegation’s request on February 16 for additional federal public health support, the release states the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced they are deploying a team of medical personnel and toxicologists to conduct public health testing and assessments.

The report says that the group will support Federal, state and local officials already on the ground to evaluate individuals who were exposed or potentially exposed to chemicals and help ensure timely communications to the public.

The White House explained that environmental agencies are being tasked with the following:

  • Monitoring Air Quality. The EPA is continuously monitoring air quality using state-of-art equipment. The EPA has also deployed mobile detection equipment and stationary equipment for detection of a wide range of compounds, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), phosgene and hydrogen chloride.
  • Screening Homes for Contaminants. The EPA has assisted with the indoor air monitoring of 500 homes under a voluntary screening program offered to residents, and no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified above levels of concern. EPA is continuing to offer screening to residents within the evacuation zone.
  • Securing Norfolk Southern Commitment to Cover Clean Up Costs. On February 10, the EPA issued a letter to Norfolk Southern requiring the railroad to document the release of hazardous contaminants. The letter also outlines cleanup actions at the site and EPA’s authority under the law to hold them accountable.
  • Holding Norfolk Southern Accountable for Clean Up. The EPA is coordinating the oversight of Norfolk Southern’s soil remediation of the derailment site. The remediation includes testing of the soils within and immediately surrounding the impacted areas. Results of the testing are evaluated by EPA and OH EPA to determine a strategy to ensure the site is cleaned up to meet federal and state regulations.
  • Helping Ensure Water is Safe to Drink. EPA is assisting state and local agencies to test surface and ground water to ensure drinking water is safe. This includes surface water testing to monitor downstream impacts on the Ohio River.

The press release states that the NTSB is leading the investigation into the cause of the derailment with the Department of Transportation personnel supporting. Once the investigation is finished, the Federal Government will use all available and appropriate authorities to further ensure accountability and improve rail safety. Further actions include:

  • Investigating the Cause of the Derailment. The National Transportation Safety Board has been on site since within hours of the derailment to determine what caused the derailment. NTSB plans to submit preliminary findings report within weeks, and a final report that will lay out what caused the derailment. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) within DOT are also on site supporting the NTSB’s investigation.
  • Ensuring Compliance with Rail Safety Regulations. FRA is working to determine Norfolk Southern’s compliance with rail safety regulations. When the DOT gets the results from the NTSB investigation about the cause of the derailment, as well as the analysis from the FRA on rail safety compliance, the DOT will take actions as needed that ensure accountability and improve safety.
  • Creating a safer rail system. DOT is working on numerous fronts to improve rail safety, including managing over $4 billion in discretionary grant programs designed to improve rail safety and eliminate at-grade rail crossings. DOT also provides training and resources for local first responders who deal with hazardous materials incidents. DOT is also working on rulemakings to improve rail safety including proposing a rule that would require a minimum of a two-person train crew size for safety reasons, a major priority for rail workers. DOT conducts research to improve the design of rail cars that carry hazardous materials. DOT is also developing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that will require railroads to provide real-time information on the contents of tank cars to authorized emergency response officials responding to or investigating an incident involving the transportation of hazardous materials by rail.  

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In addition to this, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), will send a team to interview people in the derailment area and conduct an Assessment of Chemical Exposure investigation.

The exact date, time and location of those weekly EPA meetings have not been announced yet.  First News will keep checking and let you know as soon as we know.