Ohio train derailment: EPA administrator visits East Palestine, asks residents to ‘trust the government’

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(EAST PALESTINE, Ohio) — The mayor of an Ohio village where a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed earlier this month told ABC News that he “wasn’t built for this” and needs “help.”

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway briefly spoke to reporters on Wednesday evening, before a town hall meeting with residents in the local high school’s gymnasium. ABC News asked Conaway about the pressure of being in the national spotlight and whether he has a message for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan ahead of his visit to the village on Thursday.

“I need help,” the mayor responded. “I’m not ready for this. I wasn’t built for this. I always thought of myself as a leader. I will do whatever it takes.”

Regan traveled to the northeastern Ohio derailment site on Thursday, heard from affected residents and met with the state’s emergency responders before holding a news conference where he reiterated the federal government’s commitment to “getting to the bottom” of the incident.

“Let me be clear, EPA will exercise our oversight and our enforcement authority under the law to be sure we are getting the results that the community deserves,” Regan said.

The said the Biden administration would hold Norfolk Southern rail company accountable for the derailment while touting the partnerships he said the administration has maintained with local and national leaders on mitigating the crisis thus far. He spoke amid increased criticism from Republicans and other critics who’ve said the White House is not taking the disaster seriously enough.

“From the very beginning, EPA personnel had been on site supporting local and state partners as they lead emergency response efforts,” he said. “We’ve had boots on the ground, leading robust air quality testing including the advanced technological aspect claims and our mobile analytical laboratory in and around East Palestine.”

Regan said that the EPA has assisted with the screening of more than 480 homes under the voluntary screening program offered to residents, with no vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride detected. But Regan also said he understands why some residents are questioning some of the information they’re being provided, still calling on East Palestinians to trust the EPA testing and reach out to get their home tested if they have any concerns.

“But for those who can’t,” he said, “I am asking that they trust the government. And that’s hard. We know that there is a – a lack of trust, which is why the state and the federal government have pledged to be very transparent.”

About 50 cars of a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern Railway derailed in a fiery crash on the outskirts of East Palestine, Ohio, near the state line with Pennsylvania, on the night of Feb. 3. Ten of the derailed cars were transporting hazardous materials, five of which contained vinyl chloride, a highly volatile colorless gas produced for commercial uses. There were no injuries reported from the accident, officials said.

Efforts to contain a fire at the derailment site stalled the following night, as firefighters withdrew from the blaze due to concerns about air quality and explosions. About half of East Palestine’s roughly 4,700 residents were warned to leave before officials decided on Feb. 6 to conduct a controlled release and burn of the toxic vinyl chloride from the five tanker cars, which were in danger of exploding. A large ball of fire and a plume of black smoke filled with contaminants could be seen billowing high into the sky from the smoldering derailment site as the controlled burn took place that afternoon, prompting concerns from residents about the potential effects.

A mandatory evacuation order for homes and businesses within a 1-mile radius of the derailment site was lifted on Feb. 8, after air and water samples taken the day before were deemed safe, officials said.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine spoke with White House officials on Thursday morning and requested on-the-ground federal assistance in East Palestine, according to his office and the White House later said President Biden and DeWine had spoken. The second-term Republican had told reporters on Tuesday prior that he had been contacted by Biden with offers of assistance, which DeWine declined.

“Look, the president called me and said: ‘Anything you need.’ I have not called him back after that conversation,” DeWine said during a press conference Tuesday. “We will not hesitate to do that if we’re seeing a problem or anything, but I’m not seeing it.”

According to the governor’s office, the requested assistance would come from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health and Emergency Response Team and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. DeWine’s office said they have also been in “daily contact” with the Federal Emergency Management Agency “to discuss the need for federal support, however FEMA continues to tell Governor DeWine that Ohio is not eligible for assistance at this time.”

On Wednesday, DeWine’s office announced that the latest tests conducted by the state’s EPA show five wells feeding into East Palestine’s municipal water system are free from contaminants. But residents with private wells are encouraged to drink from bottled water instead, until their well water has been tested and cleared for consumption, according to the governor’s office.

“With these tests results, Ohio EPA is confident that the municipal water is safe to drink,” DeWine’s office said in a statement. “Because private water wells may be closer to the surface than the municipal water wells, the Ohio EPA recommends that those who receive drinking water from private water wells schedule an appointment for well water testing by an independent consultant.”

Regan and other leaders like Ohio GOP Rep. Bill Johnson emphasized that residents should trust the testing if they’re told it’s safe to move back home, but that individual families could make different decisions based on their health concerns and that families who haven’t had their homes tested yet should stay put.

“If those homes have been tested, and if those homes have been tested by the state and given a clean bill of health, yes, as a father, I trust the science. I trust the methodology that the state is using. And as a parent I would,” Regan said.

“I would encourage every family in this community to reach out to the state or EPA to get their home air quality tested and their water system. We have the resources to do it. We want to do it and want people to feel secure and safe in their own homes.”

Still, some residents say they need more assurance that the testing will protect themselves and their families before moving back into their homes.

East Palestine resident Kristina Ferguson told reporters before Regan toured her home on Thursday afternoon that she wants to know if her mother’s home will be sufficient to protect her family. Ferguson raised concerns that the air monitors weren’t giving accurate readings and said she still had side effects from smelling the chemicals, even when only in the house for 15 minutes.

Afterward, Regan said he could “slightly” smell the chemicals in the home and said EPA would directly test Ferguson’s home in response to her concerns about the testing done by the contractors hired by Norfolk Southern.

“We should not have been let back into town until all of this was done. You don’t bring families back with their kids and their loved ones and then tell them to scrub the dog,” she told reporters.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources director Mary Mertz said during a press conference Tuesday that four tributaries over a space of 7.5 miles along the Ohio River are contaminated, but officials are confident that those waterways are contained and not affecting water supplies. Nevertheless, the contaminated waterways have led to the deaths of some 3,500 fish. None of the 12 different species of dead fish that were detected are considered threatened or endangered, and there was no evidence that non-aquatic life has been impacted, according to Mertz.

Tiffani Kavalec, chief of the Ohio EPA’s surface water division, told reporters Tuesday that no vinyl chloride or pre-product has been detected in the water. The contamination mostly consists of fire contaminant combustion materials, according to Kavalec.

The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting an investigation to determine the probable cause of the derailment. Two videos show preliminary indications of mechanical issues on one of the tanker car’s axles. The train’s emergency brake was activated after crews said an alarm went off, according to the NTSB.

Norfolk Southern Railway announced in a statement Tuesday that it has helped 1,000 families as well as a number of businesses in East Palestine, Ohio, since the Feb. 3 derailment. The Atlanta-based rail operator said it has also distributed $1.2 million to families to cover costs related to the evacuation.

Representatives from Norfolk Southern Railway did not attend Wednesday night’s town hall meeting due to concerns “about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties,” according to a company press release.

“We know that many are rightfully angry and frustrated right now,” Norfolk Southern Railway said in the press release. “We want to continue our dialogue with the community and address their concerns, and our people will remain in East Palestine, respond to this situation, and meet with residents. We are not going anywhere.”

Later, an open letter from Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw stated that the rail company has not abandoned the community but will be on the ground, committing $1 million to a community support fund as a “down payment” on their contribution in rebuilding the town.

“We will not walk away, East Palestine…I hear you, we hear you… we will not let you down.”

“My simple answer is that we are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive,” he added, noting the work the company has begun, including cleaning the site, working to facilitate testing on the village’s water, air and soil.

ABC News’ Peter Charalambous, Julia Jacobo, Stephanie Ebbs, Alexandra Faul and Victoria Arancio contributed to this report.

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