The EPA’s step comes 18 days after the Feb. 3 train crash, which released toxic chemicals and fumes over a wide area. In the two weeks since evacuated residents were allowed to return to their homes, national attention on East Palestine has intensified, as many residents remain angry and fearful about potential contamination and health effects.
The plans, set to be announced by EPA Administrator Michael Regan in East Palestine on Tuesday afternoon, will give the federal government oversight of the massive cleanup through a legally binding order. Regan’s visit to East Palestine, his second in a week, comes amid pressure on the federal government from some lawmakers and residents to step up its response.
“EPA’s order will ensure the company is held accountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of this community,” Regan said in a statement ahead of his news briefing. “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.”
The EPA’s move also comes as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said his department would begin a round of inspections on train routes used for freighting hazardous materials and called for the rail industry to implement new safety measures.
For days, cleanup has been ongoing in East Palestine, a town near the Pennsylvania border, and in a local stream. Crews have been digging up a 1,000-foot swath around the train tracks and pumping out water, state officials said last week, while federal and state environmental regulators examine long-term mitigation measures aimed at ensuring the safety of water and soil.
Dozens of the Norfolk Southern train’s cars piled up the night of Feb. 3 in a fiery blaze, prompting evacuations and, two days later, the release into the air of vinyl chloride from five rail cars.
Since then, with chemical odors lingering in the air, residents have reported unpleasant health symptoms, worried about the possible effect on animals and questioned whether the town is safe to stay in. Norfolk Southern’s track record has come under scrutiny, as have the responses of the EPA and Transportation Department.
Under the EPA’s order, Norfolk Southern will be charged triple costs for anything it fails to do, the agency said. The EPA will also take the lead in the response; until now, Ohio agencies and local officials had been leading the effort with support from the EPA.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has promised to clean up the contamination. The company’s representatives skipped a town hall meeting with residents last week, after which Shaw published an “open letter” saying the company would stay in East Palestine “for as long as it takes to ensure your safety.”
“I want residents of East Palestine to know that Norfolk Southern will be in their community to help for as long as needed,” Shaw said in a statement Monday, announcing that “a Norfolk Southern railroader who lives in East Palestine” will be employed as a community liaison for one year, one of various assistance measures the railroad has set up.
EPA officials and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) had previously said they had secured Norfolk Southern’s commitment to cleaning up and that they would take legal action if the rail company didn’t do the job right.
The EPA’s new step is taken through CERCLA, the act that allows the federal government to take on cleanup of what are commonly known as Superfund sites. The agency said it marked a shift from the emergency response to a longer-term cleanup.
It’s likely to be seen as a push by the Biden administration to take charge of the crisis and quell criticism.
The administration has disputed allegations that it was slow to respond, saying federal employees were on the ground within hours of the crash.
Later this week, East Palestine residents and business owners will be offered cleaning services, the EPA said. Teams sent by the federal government to provide residents with health examinations were also set to arrive Tuesday.
The full effects of the disaster are yet unknown. On Monday, Norfolk Southern said it had removed at least 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil and 1.1 million gallons of tainted water from the derailment site.
But that doesn’t represent the full extent of the contamination. Chemicals also leaked into local waterways and went into the air, and experts have said it will take time to determine whether there is lasting contamination in soil and water.
Most of the rail cars that were carrying hazardous chemicals when the train derailed have been decontaminated, Norfolk Southern said in a statement Monday. When all are decontaminated, the National Transportation Safety Board will inspect them as part of its investigation before the cars are scrapped.
This story will be updated.