EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WKBN) — East Palestine officials say they’re tired and thanked everyone for their help after an evacuation order was lifted Wednesday following a train derailment.
During a news conference Thursday, East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick said so many people have come forward with donations that they’re now inundated and trying to find a place to store them. He suggested that people who still have donations take them to other area organizations that may be in need.
“I cannot begin to express the gratitude that we have for everything that we have that the community has come together for and sent to us,” he said.
Drabick said they intend to fully staff their department through the situation.
Mayor Trent Conaway said they’re now focused on moving forward.
“We will hold their feet to the fire — Norfolk Southern’s feet to the fire, as I say, and make sure that everything is done right,” he said.
On Thursday, people were out, moving around, buying supplies, though not all the stores are open yet. Men in yellow vests, vehicles moving around and damaged railroad cars could all be seen along Taggert Street as the cleanup of last Friday’s train derailment was finally visible for anyone to see.
Officials are saying the situation has moved into a second phase.
“I just want to thank all our citizens for coming back into town in a timely manner. It was a pretty smooth operation. No incidents that I’ve heard of,” Conaway said.
That being said, Conaway did express two issues with Norfolk Southern at Thursday’s press conference. First, the trucks hauling contaminated soil from the site are tracking contaminated mud on the roads around the derailment area.
“They are bringing in street sweepers and they are going to start sweeping the streets. I told them it needs to happen immediately,” Conaway said.
He was also under the impression that no trains would start rolling again until people were back in their homes, not a few minutes after the evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday.
“It made the village look bad, it made me look bad. My citizens were upset, and I quite frankly was upset, too,” Conaway said.
Some people were without natural gas, which by now should be back on. People concerned about water quality can get bottled water through Norfolk Southern. In some places, it still smells like chemicals, and people want to know when the smell will be gone.
“We haven’t been told a timetable but until they get the chemical out of the creek, especially by the creek area, that is where the smell is going to be,” Conaway said.
People are being told to get the air in their homes checked. There are four teams doing 30-minute jobs working 10-hour days.
“I was told a little while ago that they’ve had 300 requests so far. So they are going to work diligently to work down through that,” said Peggy Clark, director of the Columbiana County EMA.
An East Palestine resident showed up at Thursday’s news conference to say people are getting quotes of $700 to $900 to clean their houses. Should they assume Norfolk Southern will pay?
“Before I would pay anybody, I would contact Norfolk Southern Family Assistance. Tell them what your plans are and check with them,” Conaway said.
Over the past week, first responders from far and wide came to the village to help, and their aid and expertise were not lost on the fire chief.
“The amount of help that we received from departments in three states, and I couldn’t even tell you how many counties, was without a doubt overwhelming,” Drabick said.
There have been news conferences in East Palestine every day since Saturday. Officials said Thursday would be the last one, unless something important comes up that everyone needs to know.
An emergency evacuation order for a one-mile radius around the crash site had been issued after a train carrying chemicals derailed around 9 p.m. Friday on the east end of East Palestine near the Pennsylvania border. The fire that ensued stretched from one-quarter to one-half mile along the tracks. The glow of the fire could be seen 10 miles away.
A controlled release of chemicals from the train cars happened on Monday to minimize the risk of an explosion. Norfolk Southern has said that release was successful.
To protect the environment, Norfolk Southern said it prepared pits and embankments to drain the material during the release on Monday, which was then remediated.
Cars have since been cleared from the rails.
Residents in the evacuation area were away from their homes for days but Wednesday afternoon, they were told that they can return home as long as they followed Columbiana County EMA’s safe reentry plan, which is posted on its website. There are some road closures still in the area. The James Street and Pleasant Drive crossings are closed, and Taggert Street between the Pennsylvania state line and the car wash is also shut down.
People were also asked to avoid the immediate area surrounding the railway.
As soon as the evacuation order was lifted, trains began running in the area again. During Thursday’s news conference, Mayor Conaway weighed in on that.
“We were told that no trains would go through town ’til we lifted the order. I was under the assumption that’s what they meant — not ’til we lifted the order, ’til everyone was in their homes — but as soon as we lifted the order, apparently, they started running trains because that’s what they said,” he said. “Everybody who was in incident command last night could tell that I was not very happy with that. It made the village look bad; it made me look bad. My citizens were upset, and I quite frankly was upset, too.”
As far as water and air quality testing — it continues.
According to the EPA, air quality samples in the area of the wreckage and in nearby residential neighborhoods have consistently shown readings at points below safety screening levels for contaminants of concern. Based on this information, state and local health officials determined that it is now safe for community members to return to their homes.
For East Palestine residents who would like an air test done on their home before they reenter, they can call 330-849-3919. For any questions or concerns, call 234-542-6474.
Clark said they’ve had a large number of requests for home air tests, so she urged residents to be patient as it may take some time to get through everyone. Each test takes approximately a half hour, she said.
As far as water quality, it is safe to drink, according to the EPA.
Kurt Kollar, of the Ohio EPA, said Thursday that some contaminants did make their way into the water, having an impact on fish in the area. He said actions were taken to minimize that, and all of the data that they’ve collected shows that drinking water is safe.
“The unfortunate side, those were immediately toxic to fish. But all of the information and data to date is it has still been protective for the drinking water,” Kollar said.
Kollar also said he expects people from his office to be monitoring the water situation for a while.
“Ohio EPA is committed to maintain the public health and safety of the citizens of East Palestine,” Kollar said.
Free testing of water from private wells in the impacted area will also be offered by Norfolk Southern.
“Norfolk Southern will pay for it,” DeWine said.
DeWine hopes Norfolk Southern will make changes so nothing like this happens to another community again.
“Look, I expect Norfolk Southern to have answers to exactly what happened and candidly to explain what they’re going to do to prevent that from happening here or someplace else in the future. The burden’s on them, I think, to assure the public of what they’re doing… make [sure] that something like this will not happen again, any place else in the United States,” DeWine said.
Norfolk Southern released a statement Sunday detailing what the train was hauling.
“Cars involved in the derailment contained vinyl chloride, combustible liquids, butyl acrylate, benzene residue cars (railroad cars that previously contained benzene,” the release stated, “and nonhazardous materials such as wheat, plastic pellets, malt liquors and lube oil.”
At a second news conference on Sunday, Michael Graham of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said there were “10 hazardous material cars” involved in the derailment.
Graham’s investigative team located the train’s data recorder, forward and inward camera video, and audio recordings that were on the train. He did not say what was on the recorder or the recordings but said the investigation was making progress.
“We have obtained two videos which show preliminary indications of mechanical issues on one of the railcar axles,” said Graham. “We’re working to identify which railcar experienced the potential mechanical issue for further examination.”
Graham said there were three Norfolk Southern employees working on the train — an engineer, conductor, and a conductor trainee — who have been interviewed, none of whom were hurt.
“The crew did receive an alarm from a wayside defect protector shortly before the derailment indicating a mechanical issue. Then an emergency brake application initiated,” said Graham.
Graham said after the train stopped, the conductor decoupled the locomotives from the railcars and moved them to a safe location.
An NTSB crew has also conducted a one-mile walk-through of the railroad tracks outside of the hot zone.
“They were able to identify the point of derailment,” said Graham, though he wouldn’t say where the point of derailment occurred or release any details of what may have happened.
During Thursday’s news conference, it was announced that the Red Cross shelter and CCEMA’s hotline were being shut down due to a lack of interest. The following contacts were given for residents, however:
- NS Family Assistance: 1-800-230-7049
- Home Air Screening: 330-849-3913
- Ohio EPA: 614-644-2160
- US EPA: epaosc.org
- CTEH toxicology: 234-542-6474
- Columbiana Co. Extension: 330-967-7249
- Community Action Agency: 330-424-4013
- Mental health help 330-846-1979