U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan on Tuesday met with residents of East Palestine, Ohio Tuesday as he announced that the Biden administration has ordered railway operator Norfolk Southern to take responsibility for all cleanup work associated with the train derailment that forced the town to evacuate temporarily earlier this month.
The EPA issued a legally binding order to the company, requiring it to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water, reimburse the agency for cleaning services that will be offered throughout the town to give residents peace of mind regarding the safety of air and drinking water, attend public meetings, and pay for the costs the EPA incurs during the cleanup.
"My job is to hold the company accountable and make sure that they clean up and pay for it," said Regan at a roundtable discussion with residents. "I think it's important that we have these conversations, so that as we enforce the laws and as the company does the cleanup, they do it in a way that is satisfactory to some of the requests that you all have."
Any required work that Norfolk Southern fails to complete will immediately be done by the agency, said the EPA in a statement, and the agency will "then seek to compel Norfolk Southern to pay triple the cost."
"The Norfolk Southern train derailment has upended the lives of East Palestine families, and EPA's order will ensure the company is held accountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of this community," said Regan. "Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they've inflicted on this community... To the people of East Palestine, EPA stands with you now and for as long as it may take."
"Norfolk Southern will attend and participate in public meetings at EPA's request and share information with the public. Full transparency is the only option."
The company has been conducting cleanup operations since the derailment occurred on February 3, and said Monday that it has removed at least 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil and 1.1 million gallons of polluted water.
After the crash, the company began a controlled release of vinyl chloride, the carcinogenic chemical which was carried by five of the rail cars. The release of the chemical can send hydrogen chloride and phosgene into the environment.
Since evacuated residents were told by officials that it was safe to return to East Palestine, some have reported symptoms including headaches and rashes, as well as lingering chemical smells—raising alarm about the safety of the town.
As Common Dreamsreported Saturday, officials advised residents that drinking water in East Palestine was safe after tests that were paid for by Norfolk Southern and that some experts found to be flawed.
Anger has grown in the town and across the country in the weeks since the crash, with residents infuriated last month after officials from Norfolk Southern pulled out of a planned town hall meeting, citing "the growing physical threat to our employees."
"Norfolk Southern will attend and participate in public meetings at EPA's request and share information with the public," said Regan. "Full transparency is the only option."
Regan noted that the legally binding order "cannot undo the nightmare that families in this town have been living with, but it will begin to deliver much needed comfort for the pain that Norfolk Southern has caused."
Critics including rail workers, environmental groups, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have blamed the crash on the rail company's use of a scheduling system that prioritizes speed over the well-being of workers and the public and its lobbying against safety regulations.
Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro joined Regan Tuesday in East Palestine, which lies near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, and said Norfolk Southern "injected unnecessary risk" into the response to the disaster with its "failed management."
"The combination of Norfolk Southern's corporate greed, incompetence, and lack of concern for our residents is absolutely unacceptable to me," Shapiro said.