On Tuesday afternoon, over a week and a half after the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine and other officials held a press conference updating the public on the ongoing effort to clean up the chemical spill.
While describing the events following the February 3 derailment, DeWine said that when he traveled to East Palestine to meet with those on the ground, "it was clear at that point that we were faced with two bad options."
"One option was to do nothing and wait for the [train] car to explode," he said, which would result in a "catastrophic" spread of shrapnel going out in a mile radius. Ultimately, after weighing options, a controlled release was decided on, resulting in the burning of chemicals from the train cars.
DeWine said that a few days after the fire was set, members of the Ohio National Guard went into the zone that was evacuated and took air sample levels, with the governor stressing that "no one was allowed back in that area until they could come back and tell us that the monitoring was consistently good."
The monitoring revealed that the air was "basically what it was prior to the actual train crash," said DeWine, and people were let back into their homes in the area.
"Our environmental teams remain in East Palestine, where they’re working directly with the railroad and others to ensure that the site is thoroughly cleaned up," he added.
DeWine said that he called Alan Shaw, CEO of Norfolk Southern this morning to discuss the concerns of residents, and asked him "if he would personally guarantee that the railroad would stay there until absolutely everything was clean."
"He gave me his word and his commitment that the railroad would do that, they would not leave until that was done," DeWine said of the call.
DeWine also noted that President Biden has assured that the state would receive anything it needs from the federal government in terms of cleaning up the crash.
The governor said he learned today that "this train was not considered a high hazardous material train" therefore "the railroad was not required to notify anyone here in Ohio about what was in the rail cars coming into our state. I would think that the members of Congress — I would ask them to take a look at this."
The train, he said, was not considered a high hazardous material train because the majority of the train cars did not possess hazardous materials. "Frankly, if this is true, and I’m told it’s true, this is absurd."
Mary Mertz, Director of the Department of Natural Resources, said that the initial impact on waterways affected Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, and a portion of the north fork of Beaver Creek.
Mertz said that these four different waterways were looked at for environmental impacts over a span of seven and a half miles, and around 3,500 dead fish across 12 species were discovered.
"The good news is that none of those species were threatened or endangered, but that is still a loss of wildlife."
Mertz said that the state will be monitoring for any dead Hellbender salamanders over the coming months, as that species is listed as endangered, though initial reports show that none have died as a result of the chemical release. She added that she hasn’t heard any reports of nonaquatic species suffering as a result of the derailment.
Tiffani Kavalec, Chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said that Sulphur Run is being "actively aerated," and that a containment has been set up within the 1.3 miles that leads into Leslie Run.
"Sulphur Run remains contaminated but we’re confident that it is contained," she said, noting that data collected on February 4 showed low levels of contamination in Leslie Run and north fork of the Little Beaver Creek. A more recent data collection on February 10 showed low levels of only two contaminants, butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate. Vinyl chloride, the chemical of most concern in the train derailment, was not detected in downgradient waterways.
Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, Director of the Ohio Department of Health, began by saying that "for the most part, most of the chemicals that we're worried about and that we're talking about fall into a category known as volatile organic chemicals."
He said that volatile organic compounds "are actually a part of our everyday life."
"Now, the good news is that most people can be around these volatile organic compounds at low levels without really feeling health effects. However, at higher levels, especially over a longer period of time, then we can have longer term health effects and that's why there is the concern around these compounds," he said.
To reduce the risk these compounds can possess, Vanderhoff said that ample air testing has been conducted and that the municipal water has been tested. Those on private wells, he said, should get their water tested as a precaution, and use bottled water in the meantime.
In regards to stories of residents suffering from headaches, sore throats, and smelling chemicals following the derailment, Vanderhoff said that chemicals can be smelled even at small, unharmful levels, and that volatile organic compounds share the same symptoms as a "host of other things."
In response to a question on Norfolk Southern handling the cleanup, DeWine said that "we fully expect them to live up to" the promise that their CEO made, and that "they will pay for everything.
"If they don’t, we’ve got an attorney general that will file a lawsuit."
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