This story has been updated.
The US Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to the railroad company, Norfolk Southern, Friday, documenting contaminants that could have been released into the environment, including three that had not previously been reported. The agency also notified the company that it is potentially liable for the cleanup costs under the federal Superfund program.
Of the roughly 50 train cars that derailed on Friday, February 3, about 20 were listed as carrying hazardous materials. On its website, EPA posted a list, provided by Norfolk Southern, of the chemicals in the cars involved in the derailment.
Two chemicals, butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride, have previously been disclosed, with vinyl chloride leading to a mandatory evacuation last Monday.
In its letter to the company, EPA listed the three other chemicals involved in the derailment: ethylhexyl acrylate, which can cause burning on the skin and in the eyes, coughing and shortness of breath; isobutylene, which can make people dizzy and drowsy; and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether which can cause coughing, dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, nausea, and weakness if inhaled.
EPA stated that “materials released during the incident were observed and detected in samples from Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek, and the Ohio River.” The letter also stated that materials were observed entering storm drains.
Five cars with vinyl chloride were intentionally breached, according to EPA’s letter, diverting the chemical to an excavated trench and then burning it off. The EPA states that areas of contaminated soil and liquids were “observed and potentially covered and/or filled during reconstruction of the rail line including portions of the trench/burn pit that was used for the open burn off of vinyl chloride.”
Under the Superfund program, the company is potentially liable for cleanup. EPA’s letter said it “encourages” the company to agree to reimburse the agency for costs it incurred to date and to voluntarily perform or finance the response activities that EPA determines are required.
Over the weekend, the East Palestine Police Department notified the public via Facebook that a Potable Well Task Group is planning to knock on the doors of homes that have been identified as having “At Risk” drinking water wells in the area. The contractors, the post said, are working for Norfolk Southern.
This comes days after officials lifted the evacuation order at a press conference on Wednesday, stating the air and water were safe.
“It’s literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of data points that we’ve collected over the time to show that the air quality in the town is safe,” said US EPA’s James Justice during the press conference. The Ohio EPA conducted water sampling and said drinking water sources were safe.
More than 400 residents requested indoor air monitoring at their homes for vinyl chloride and other chemicals from the derailment. As of Sunday evening, EPA’s website indicated about half of those tests had been completed. “No detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified for the completed screened homes,” according to EPA’s website.
The city of Weirton, West Virginia, down the Ohio River from the derailment, detected butyl acrylate in the river last week and was able to switch to an alternate supply source. The chemical did not affect the drinking water sent to residents. It’s unclear if that contamination came from the derailment.
Yesterday, the utility West Virginia American Water in Huntington, WV, said that while there hasn’t been any change in the water it takes from the Ohio River, it plans on installing a secondary water intake on the Guyandotte River in case there’s a need to switch to an alternate water source. As a precautionary measure, the company said it has enhanced its treatment processes.
Norfolk Southern released a remedial action work plan to the Ohio EPA on Monday, which lists a number of ways it will continue to monitor and clean up the site, including installing wells to monitor groundwater.
How are residents faring?
Shawna Lewis said her family returned home, and are back to work and school, but she is “still stressed and worried.”
People have reported soot on their homes and cars and are concerned about contamination. There are longer-term worries about these chemicals leaching into groundwater supplies, the health of pets and farm animals, and the soil in which people grow food.
Norfolk Southern offered residents $1,000 in the first few days after the derailment to pay hotel costs for residents that were being evacuated. The company told cleveland.com that the payouts are part of the initial phase of compensation for residents affected by the derailment and that recipients are not signing away any rights to future claims.
Lawsuits have already been filed against Norfolk Southern by business owners and citizens, including seeking the company to pay for medical monitoring and related care for people living within a 30-mile radius of the site.
Kathy Knauer contributed to the reporting.