EPA Orders OH Train Derailment Cleanup Action


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Norfolk Southern to conduct all actions in the environmental cleanup phase associated with the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. Cleanup efforts are ongoing as some residents have reported health concerns regarding the air and water in the community.

“The Norfolk Southern train derailment has upended the lives of East Palestine families, and EPA’s order will ensure the company is held accountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of this community,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “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.”

What Happened

At approximately 8:55 p.m. ET on Feb. 3, a train derailment occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, about 20 miles south of Youngstown and near the Pennsylvania order. About 50 of the 150 train cars had derailed, and of the 20 cars carrying hazardous materials, about 10 were affected.

Norfolk Southern reported the incident at 10:53 p.m. to the National Response Center. According to National Transportation Safety Board Member Michael Graham, the crew received a mechanical failure warning from a wayside defect detector before the derailment.

The NTSB is investigating the accident, requesting records from Norfolk Southern, including track inspection records, locomotive and railcar inspections and maintenance records, train crew records and qualifications.

Investigators also reportedly identified the point of derailment and found video showing “preliminary indications of mechanical issues” on one of the railcar axles, Graham said.

While no injuries were immediately reported, the derailment resulted in a large fire, prompting evacuations of nearby residents within a mile radius. A shelter-in-place order was also issued for the entire remainder of the town.

While a variety of chemicals were being carried by the train, the chemical of “most concern” in the tankers was vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic gas that’s highly flammable and often used to produce polyvinyl chloride for pipes, wire coatings or plastic kitchenware.

The EPA deployed real-time air monitoring instruments in locations surrounding the fire and the neighboring community to monitor for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, carbon monoxide, oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, phosgene and hydrogen chloride, as well as measuring the flammability of gases in the perimeter.

Additionally, the EPA worked to install booms and underflow dams to restrict the flow of contaminated water in two streams, Sulfur Run and Leslie Run.

Residents were again urged to evacuate on Sunday due to the risk of explosion. In a statement, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine noted that a “drastic temperature change” took place inside a rail car, with the potential for “catastrophic tanker failure.”

That Monday, Ohio National Guard and U.S. Department of Defense, DeWine and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro ordered an immediate evacuation in a one-mile by two-mile surrounding area, citing that the vinyl chloride contents of five rail cars were unstable and could potentially explode.

Residents were warned that anyone in the “red” affected area would faced “grave danger of death,” and those in the yellow impacted areas were at high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage. Mayor Trent Conaway reported that everyone cleared out when officials went door-to-door.

Controlled Release

Around 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 6, crews began a “controlled release” of the toxic chemicals from five of the tanker cars that were in danger of exploding. According to reports, flames and black smoke billowed in the sky from the derailment site during the operation. This was attributed to the slow release of vinyl chloride into a trough that was then ignited, creating a large plume.

The process reportedly involves using a small charge to blow a hole in the cars, allowing the material to go into a trench and burning it off before it’s released in the air. Scot Deutsch of Norfolk Southern said that performing the procedure during the day would allow the fumes to disperse more quickly and prevent the rail cars from exploding and sending shrapnel and other debris from flying through the neighborhood.

About three hours later, the railway issued a statement saying that experts and first responders had breached the rail cars, chemicals were burning off and the cars were expected to drain for several more hours. At 7 p.m., the flames were reduced and a small fire continued in the pit. Deutsch told reporters that the remaining fires will go out on their own and won’t be extinguished by crews.

“The detonation went perfect and we're already to a point where the cars are safe,” Deutsch said. “They were not safe prior to this [controlled release].”

During the controlled burn, the EPA reported that air monitoring detected particulate matter resulting from the fire, but did not detect chemical contaminants of concern in the hours following the controlled burn. They had warned residents in the surrounding area that they may smell odors coming from the site, but the levels are much lower than what is considered hazardous.

Latest EPA Action

Last week, the EPA announced it was ordering Norfolk Southern to conduct all necessary actions associated with the cleanup from the train derailment. This order also marks the transition from the “emergency phase” to the longer-term remediation phase.

As part of the legally binding order, Norfolk Southern will be required to:

  • Identify and clean up contaminated soil and water resources;
  • Reimburse EPA for cleaning services to be offered to residents and businesses to provide an additional layer of reassurance, which will be conducted by EPA staff and contractors;
  • Attend and participate in public meetings at EPA’s request and post information online; and
  • Pay for EPA’s costs for work performed under this order.

Additionally, the EPA will approve a workplan outlining all steps necessary to clean up the environmental damage caused by the derailment. If the company fails to complete any actions as ordered by EPA, the Agency will immediately step in, conduct the necessary work, and then seek to compel Norfolk Southern to pay triple the cost.

“As we transition from emergency response, EPA will continue to coordinate closely with our local, state and federal partners through a whole-of-government approach to support the East Palestine community during the remediation phase. To the people of East Palestine, EPA stands with you now and for as long as it may take,” said Regan in the release.

The EPA will reportedly offer cleanup services to area businesses and families, of which Norfolk Southern will reimburse for the costs. More details about requesting the services were anticipated to be available later in the week.

According to the release, the EPA will establish a “unified command structure” to coordinate the clean-up related efforts of Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Health and Human Services, Ohio EPA, Ohio EMA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, as well as Norfolk Southern. 

The NTSB also issued its preliminary findings on Feb. 23, with the report indicating that one of the train’s cars carrying plastic pellets was heated by a hot axle that sparked the initial fire. As the temperature of the bearing got hotter, the train passed by two wayside defect detectors that did not trigger an audible alarm message because the heat threshold was not met at that point. A third detector picked up the heat, but it was already “too late.”

“This was 100% preventable … There is no accident. Every single event that we investigate is preventable,” said Jennifer Homendy, NTSB Chair, during a news conference Thursday. “The NTSB has one goal, and that is safety and ensuring that this never happens again.”

A health clinic was opened by the state for residents who have concerns their health was affected by the derailment, as testing for chemicals in the air and water continue. According to reports, the community has reported a “growing number of ailments,” including rashes, nausea and trouble breathing.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said that more than 43,700 animals were believed to have been killed due to the accident. Norfolk Southern has reportedly installed booms and dams to restrict the flow of contaminated water on the Sulphur Run and Leslie Run streams where contaminated runoff was discovered.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Cleanup; Construction chemicals; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Fire; Government; hazardous materials; Health & Safety; Health and safety; NA; North America; NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board); Program/Project Management; Rail; Railcars

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