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A week after evacuations near the toxic Ohio train wreck ended, anxious residents pack meeting to express doubts about safety

<i>Gene J. Puskar/AP</i><br/>A black plume rises February 6 over East Palestine
Gene J. Puskar/AP
A black plume rises February 6 over East Palestine

By Christina Maxouris and Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN

Nearly two weeks after a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in the eastern Ohio village of East Palestine and sparked a massive dayslong blaze, residents packed a high school gym Wednesday for a meeting with officials all demanding the same thing: answers.

An odor of chlorine has lingered long after the February 3 derailment that prompted crews to manage detonations to release vinyl chloride, which can kill quickly at high levels and increase cancer risk. And although an evacuation order was lifted last week, some residents are staying elsewhere amid fears the water, air, soil and surfaces in the village of 5,000 still are not safe.

So residents packed the gym’s bleachers for Wednesday’s community meeting — after forming a line that wrapped around the block before doors opened.

“Is it OK to still be here? Are my kids safe? Are the people safe? Is the future of this community safe?” resident Lenny Glavan, who was at the meeting, told reporters on Wednesday.

The event hosted by East Palestine officials was supposed include officials from Norfolk Southern. But the company, which said it had hoped to provide updates on cleanup efforts and results from air and water tests, backed out earlier in the day, saying it was concerned about a “growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event,” stemming from its belief that “outside parties” would participate.

Instead, local leaders took questions from emotional residents who expressed distrust of officials’ accounts and anger — including at the transport company’s decision to skip the event.

“Where’s Norfolk Southern?” some yelled.

Residents questioned how safe their village is, the validity of air and water tests, and how the potential long-term health effects will be monitored in the community.

The meeting came on a day when the governor’s office announced state officials again determined water coming from the municipal system was safe to drink. Test results from five wells that supply the system — covered by steel casing — showed no contaminants, the Ohio governor’s office said.

Still, the state’s Environmental Protection Agency encourages residents who get water from private wells to get that water tested, because those wells may be closer to the surface than the municipal wells, the governor’s office said.

The evacuation order was lifted February 8, five days after the derailment, after earlier air and water sample results led officials to deem the area safe.

Yet other points of contention are emerging, including a newly public document that says potentially contaminated soil was not removed from the site — a critical step experts say should be completed quickly so that toxic materials are not further dispersed into the environment and groundwater.

Mayor: ‘I want answers’

Speaking to reporters inside the gym before Wednesday’s community meeting, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway sent a message to federal EPA leaders: “I need help.”

“I have the village on my back, and I’ll do whatever it takes — whatever it takes — to make this right. I’m not leaving,” the mayor told reporters. “I’m not going to sell my house. I’m not going to move my kids out of the school. I’m here to stay.”

The mayor said he’s in touch with Norfolk Southern officials every day. But much like the residents in his town, he, too, is concerned.

“The people want answers. I want answers,” Conaway said. “My greatest concern is that my citizens feel safe. That’s what I care about. I don’t care about anything else.”

“I live two blocks from the train tracks,” he added. “I’m concerned, just like everybody else.”

Since the derailment, some residents, like Nathan Velez, have been spending small fortunes to try to keep their families safely away from the place they used to call home. He, his wife and two children have been staying at Airbnb rentals.

“My wife is a nurse and is not taking any chances exposing us and our two young children to whatever is now in our town,” Velez wrote on Facebook. When he visited the town Monday, he smelled chlorine in the air, burning his throat and eyes, he said. “The risk and anxiety of trying to live in our own home again is not worth it,” he wrote.

Long-term effects stoke residents’ anxiety

The 100-car freight train that derailed February 3 was carrying hazardous materials including vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and butyl acrylate, the US Environmental Protection Agency said. Of those, the vinyl chloride gas that caught fire could break down into compounds including hydrogen chloride and phosgene, a chemical weapon used during World War I as a choking agent, according to the EPA and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vinyl chloride — a volatile organic compound, or VOC, and the most toxic chemical involved in the derailment — is known to cause cancer, attacking the liver, and can also affect the brain, Maria Doa of the Environmental Defense Fund told CNN.

Cleanup and monitoring of the site could take years, Kurt Kollar of the Ohio EPA’s Office of Emergency Response said February 8, vowing that after the emergency response, “Ohio EPA is going to remain involved through our other divisions that oversee the long-term cleanup of these kinds of spill.” The federal EPA, too, will “continue to do everything in our power to help protect the community,” Administrator Michael Regan said Tuesday.

Norfolk Southern is responsible for cleaning up the site, according to a February 10 notice sent to the company by the federal EPA.

In a document sent to the EPA and recently made public by the agency, a company contracted by Norfolk Southern for cleanup efforts did not list soil removal among completed activities.

Removal of soil that has come into contact with hazardous chemicals is a key cleanup action at spill sites, experts say.

“Contaminated soil will continue (to) leech contaminants, both up into the air, and down into the surrounding ground,” Richard Peltier, an environmental health scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told CNN in an email. “Every time it rains, a flood of new contaminants will enter the ecosystem.”

The railroad reopened the rail line on February 8 after taking steps including a controlled release of a toxic chemical from certain cars. It is not yet known what significance or impact the soil that was not removed prior to the rail line reopening may have on surrounding areas.

CNN asked Norfolk Southern why it had not removed contaminated soil before reopening the site, and if it had filled in areas of contaminated soil and chemicals in order to reopen the rail line.

A company spokesperson said “some soil is moved around” during the initial response phase. The company is continuing to “remediate the site” including by removing soil, spokesperson Connor Spielmaker added.

The federal EPA and Ohio EPA have not responded to repeated questions from CNN about removal of contaminated soil.

Regan, the federal EPA’s administrator, will travel to East Palestine on Thursday to assess the ongoing response and hear from the community on the impact of the crisis, the agency said.

Long-term effects stoke residents’ anxiety

East Palestine resident Ben Ratner and his family worry about the longer-term risks that environmental officials are only beginning to assess, he told CNN this week.

The Ratner home, for instance, was tested and cleared for VOCs, he said. So far, no chemical detections were identified in the air of 291 homes screened by the EPA for hazardous chemicals including vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride, it said in a Monday news update, with schools and a library also screened and 181 more homes to go.

But the Ratners still are feeling “an ever-changing mix of emotions and feelings just right from the outset, just the amount of unknown that was there,” said Ben, who owns a cafe a few towns over and isn’t sure he still wants to open another in East Palestine.

“It’s hard to make an investment in something like that or even feel good about paying our mortgage whenever there might not be any value to those things in the future,” he said. “That’s something tough to come to grips with.”

Norfolk Southern said Wednesday it was creating a $1 million charitable fund to support East Palestine, saying it was “committed” to the community “today and in the future.”

“We are cleaning up the site in an environmentally responsible way, reimbursing residents affected by the derailment, and working with members of the community to identify what is needed to help East Palestine recover and thrive,” Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw said in a release.

‘Why does it hurt me to breathe?’

The EPA, with the Ohio National Guard and a Norfolk Southern contractor, also has collected air samples — checking for vinyl chloride, hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, phosgene and other compounds — in the East Palestine community, it had said. Air monitoring results posted Tuesday at the EPA’s website include more than a dozen instruments, each with four types of measures — and each stating its “screening level” had not been exceeded.

But when Velez returned Monday for a short visit to the neighborhood where his family has lived since 2014 to check his home and his business, he developed a nagging headache.

“If it’s safe and habitable, then why does it hurt?” he told CNN. “Why does it hurt me to breathe?”

Air quality does not appear to be the source of headaches and sore throats among people or deaths of animals such as cats and chickens in and around the derailment zone, Ohio Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said Tuesday.

“Volatile organic compounds share, with a host of other things, the ability to cause very common symptoms at the lower levels — so headache, eye irritation, nose irritation, et cetera,” he said. “I think that we have to look at the measured facts — and the measured facts include the fact that the air sampling in that area really is not pointing toward an air source for this.”

As to odor, residents “in the area and tens of miles away may smell odors coming from the site,” Ohio EPA spokesperson James Lee told CNN on Wednesday. “This is because some of the substances involved have a low odor threshold. This means people may smell these contaminants at levels much lower than what is considered hazardous.”

“If you experience symptoms, Columbiana County Health Department recommends calling your medical provider,” the EPA said.

Wreck and spill blamed for thousands of dead fish

The Ratner family is limiting its water use because of unknown affects, Ben Ratner said. Velez worries “every time we turn the water on or give my daughter a bath could potentially be hazardous,” he wrote on Facebook.

Some waterways indeed have been contaminated — but the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is confident contaminants are contained, said Tiffani Kavalec, the agency’s division chief of surface water.

No vinyl chloride has been detected in any down-gradient waterways near the train derailment, she said Tuesday. But an estimated 3,500 fish across 12 species are estimated to have been killed by the derailment and spillage, said Mary Mertz, director of Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources.

“Fire combustion chemicals” flowed to the Ohio River, “but the Ohio River is very large, and it’s a water body that’s able to dilute the pollutants pretty quickly,” Kavalec said. The chemicals are a “contaminant plume” the Ohio EPA and other agencies have tracked in real time and is believed to be moving about a mile an hour, she said.

The “tracking allows for potential closing of drinking water intakes to allow the majority of the chemicals to pass. This strategy, along with drinking water treatment … are both effective at addressing these contaminants and helps ensure the safety of the drinking water supplies,” Kavalec said, adding they’re pretty confident “low levels” of contaminants that remain are not getting to customers.

Even so, authorities strongly recommend people in the area drink bottled water, especially if their water is from a private source, such as a well.

Velez also worries about unknown long-term effects of the burned train contents — and what will happen next for his family. Rental options and their finances are running out, he said, and a friend set up a GoFundMe to help them.

“Many of us residents are stuck in the same situation and the sad truth is that there is no answer,” he wrote online.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Kurt Kollar of the Ohio EPA’s Office of Emergency Response. It also misspelled the first name of Ohio Environmental Protection Agency official Tiffani Kavalec.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Jason Carroll, Bonney Kapp, Greg Wallace, Brenda Goodman, Julian Cummings, Laura Ly, Ella Nilsen, Nouran Salahieh, Celina Tebor, Vanessa Yurkevich, Holly Yan, Joe Sutton and Kyla Russell contributed to this report.

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