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East Palestine train derailment site cleanup will likely take about 3 months, EPA administrator says

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visits the site of the derailment of a train carrying hazardous waste in East Palestine, Ohio
Posted at 9:13 PM, Mar 17, 2023

Cleanup of the toxic train derailment site in the Ohio town of East Palestine will likely take about three months, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency said Friday.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said 6.8 million gallons of liquid waste and more than 5,400 tons of solid waste have already been transported to designated facilities -- including 1,600 tons in the past 48 hours.

The train wreck early last monthignited a dayslong fire, spewed poisonous fumes into the air, killed thousands of fish and temporarily displaced residents.

The derailment prompted fears of a catastrophic explosion of vinyl chloride -- a highly flammable chemical linked to an increased risk of cancer. After a mandatory evacuation order, crews released vinyl chloride into a trench and burned it -- averting an explosion but spawning new health concerns.

Nearly half of the total excavation of contaminated soil from under the tracks was completed as of Thursday, including the entire south track, Regan told reporters. North track excavation should be completed by early next month, he said.

Train operator Norfolk Southern is handling and paying for all necessary cleanup. The company has sent some hazardous waste out of state, fueling more concerns about safety.

Regan said there was "real progress" in the cleanup effort but noted that "Norfolk Southern could be moving faster to remove contaminated soil from East Palestine." He voiced concerns that some states were "inhibiting the company's ability to execute contracts."

Norfolk Southern in a statement said it shares "the EPA's urgency to complete the remediation safely and thoroughly," at the derailment site.

The freight rail company said it has had to pause cleanup several times at the "request of state officials," but it said each time it has "moved quickly" to address concerns and resume work.

The company continues to say it will "keep working until the job is done" and is "committed to doing what's right for the people of East Palestine."

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said soil sampling is underway in private backyards and private land used for agriculture in East Palestine. Results are not back yet on the more than 100 samples collected thus far.

DeWine said the pace of the removal had "picked up" in recent weeks.

EPA representative Mark Durno said the first phase of the soil sampling began March 9, targeting "the areas most impacted by potential particle deposition in the community." The samples are being collected over a one-mile radius surrounding the initial derailment site and another mile to the southeast, extending into Pennsylvania.

Officials expect to collect between 270 and 300 samples.

The EPA on Friday issued notifications reminding the CEO of Norfolk Southern as well as state environmental regulators across the country of their legal obligations to remove the contaminated waste from East Palestine, Regan said.

The railroad is subject to civil penalties and damages, as well as the possible referral to the US Justice Department to enforce the order. Regan also said waste disposal companies must be forced to honor their contracts with Norfolk Southern or face legal action. The EPA also notified state environmental regulators in the country that they "cannot unilaterally stop shipments of out of state hazardous waste from East Palestine," Regan said, calling actions to impede the EPA order to Norfolk Southern "unlawful."

Regan said waste from East Palestine has been subjected to rigorous testing and analysis.

Ohio on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, saying the railroad violated numerous state and federal laws as well as the state's Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

In the suit, Attorney General Dave Yost called the derailment "entirely avoidable."