WASHINGTON – The federal government is sending medical personnel and toxicologists to conduct public health tests following the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials that was released in a small town near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
A team from the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be on the ground in East Palestine, Ohio, as well as the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, to support efforts by EPA and the state health department, administration officials said in a call with reporters Friday.
Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and the state’s congressional delegation Thursday requested additional federal help to conduct public health tests and assessments, according to administration officials, who spoke in the background.
On February 3, a Norfolk Southern Railway train derailed in eastern Palestine, a city of nearly 5,000, causing dangerous chemicals to be released through a controlled burn to prevent an explosion. It forced residents to evacuate the area.
“This was a terrible mistake,” said an administration official. “Trauma affected this community.”
Ohio lawmakers and EPA Administrator Michael Regan have been in eastern Palestine to hear from residents, who have complained of rashes, headaches and dead fish and wildlife in the area after the derailment and the controlled burn.
ATSDR will also send a team to interview people in the area of the derailment and conduct a chemical exposure survey assessment, administration officials said.
Air quality tested
Administration officials said the EPA tested the air quality of 500 homes as part of a voluntary screening process and found no air quality levels of concern for vinyl chloride or acid hydrochloric. Five of the train cars were carrying vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastics, and hydrogen chloride is a toxic chemical that is released by burning vinyl chloride.
Vinyl chloride is classified as a known human carcinogen by the Department of Health and Human Services and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Administration officials said the EPA will continue to monitor the air, soil and surface water of the Ohio River and conduct voluntary screenings of residents’ homes. The agency will also oversee Norfolk Southern’s soil remediation and has sent a letter to the rail company, asking Norfolk Southern to outline its cleanup actions.
“Norfolk Southern has responded and agreed to fund response costs, but we will continue to exercise full authority under the law to hold the company liable under the Comprehensive Environmental (Response), Compensation, and Liability Act,” said a administration official.
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act is known as the Superfund Act, which gives EPA the authority to seek responsible parties – in this case, Norfolk Southern – for the release of pollutants and contaminants into the environment and requires to those responsible for cleaning up those toxic emissions.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is an independent federal agency, is investigating the cause of the train derailment and expects to submit its preliminary findings within weeks, administration officials said. NTSB investigators have pointed to wheel failure as the probable cause of the crash, according to the preliminary investigation details.
“Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheating failure moments before the derailment,” according to NTSB investigators. “The suspected overheated wheel bearing has been picked up and will be investigated by engineers at the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, DC”