White House: Civil penalties possible for Norfolk Southern

(NewsNation) — The railroad company whose train spilled toxic chemicals after derailing in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month could face additional civil penalties, White House officials told NewsNation Friday.

The civil penalties against Norfolk Southern would likely come after the release of a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, which is expected later this month.

While Norfolk Southern has already agreed to pay for the cleanup efforts, they could be on the hook for even more money.

One administration official told NewsNation the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could issue a legally binding order that would require the railroad to pay up to three times the government’s total cleanup cost.

As East Palestine residents complain of headaches, burning eyes and other health issues after a train with hazardous materials derailed in the area early this month, medical experts from the Department of Health and Human Services are coming to the Ohio village.

“We know the science indicates that this water is safe, the air is safe. But we also know very understandably that residents of East Palestine are concerned,” Gov. Mike DeWine said. “Residents deserve an answer. They have suffered a great deal. This has been a traumatic time for them.”

The experts are expected early next week, and the Ohio Department of Health is establishing a clinic in East Palestine for residents to come in and get assessed.

“We know that there are some people who do not have insurance. We also know that we have people who may not even have a primary doctor,” DeWine said. “We want to make sure that they have a place to go.”

Information about the clinic’s location and hours will be available at ema.ohio.gov/EastPalestine.

DeWine stressed that these experts are not coming to East Palestine because of air or water issues. Officials continued to reiterate Friday that sampling has indicated both are safe.

Wes Vins, the health commissioner for the Columbiana County Health District, told Marni Hughes on “NewsNation Live” that sampling and monitoring are ongoing.

“We have a very robust groundwater-monitoring effort going underway,” he said. “To this date, we do not have any evidence that indicates contamination to our drinking water here in East Palestine.”

Although drinking water from the public system is safe, according to officials, those with private wells are still being urged to use bottled water.

There are 20 monitors located “strategically” throughout the community to assess outdoor air. Experts, DeWine said, told him the monitors were coming back clean.

“In 500 homes where the air has been tested, no contamination of concern caused by the rail derailment was present in any of these homes,” he said.

When it comes to the chemical plume of butyl acrylate in the Ohio River, sampling has now shown it has “completely dissipated,” DeWine said, adding that it was never thought to be very high.

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

More than two dozen homes are scheduled for air testing Friday, according to the governor. Those who want to schedule a screening of their own home can call 330-849-3919.

However, officials’ assurances have not done much to quell some residents’ concerns amid their health questions and reports of dead fish and livestock.

Bob Figley, of East Palestine, says his wife won’t even come back home.

“She’s very fearful of the future consequences of this event. We can’t get any accurate or convincing evidence that it’s safe to be here,” he said. “It’s like jumping through hoops for everything we try to get.”

Although U.S. Health and Human Services experts will be in East Palestine, another U.S. group, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was not approved to go at first. However, DeWine Friday evening said following further discussions that FEMA would be deploying federal resources to East Palestine Saturday.

“FEMA and the state of Ohio have been in constant contact regarding emergency operations in East Palestine. U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA have been working together since day one,” Dewine and FEMA Regional Adminstrator Thomas C. Sivak said in a joint statement. “Tomorrow, FEMA will supplement federal efforts by deploying a Senior Response Official along with a Regional Inicident Managment Assistance Team (IMAT) to support ongoing operations, including incident coordination and ongoing assessments of potential long-term recovery needs.”

Former Democratic Ohio state Sen. Capri Cafaro told NewsNation that that area of Ohio is largely on their own.

“Our community, the greater community in the Mahoning Valley and in eastern Ohio, we have, by and large, always had to fend for ourselves,” Cafaro said. “Corporations have often sold us a bill of goods. And that’s why we’re skeptical, with good reason. No one has ever been there to help us. We’re seeing that now.”

Cafaro also had harsh words for Norfolk Southern, the rail carrier whose train derailed in Ohio, saying she’s not buying what they’re selling.

“We’ve been having issues, not just in Ohio but across the country, when it comes to the disclosure of the hazardous chemicals and hazardous materials on freight rail,” she said.

As of Thursday, at least six federal lawsuits had been filed against Norfolk Southern in the U.S. District Court’s Northern District of Ohio. One of the country’s largest personal injury law firms, Morgan & Morgan, filed a class action lawsuit Wednesday.

But for people like Figley, they can’t wait for those suits to be settled.

“Norfolk Southern needs to cut the checks and pay for all this damage right now, not 10 years from now, when the court case gets solved,” he said. “And most of these people don’t have the money or the resources in any way to even pay for a hotel room.”

In a past statement, Norfolk Southern’s CEO said the company would not walk away from the situation.

“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,” Shaw wrote.

Norfolk said it distributed $1.5 million in direct financial assistance to more than 1,000 families, and established a separate $1 million fund for the community as well.

“We believe that the railroad should continue to pay, and we’re going to insist that they pay whatever damages have been caused,” DeWine said. “The railroad is responsible for those damages.”

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said there are many questions about why the accident even occurred in the first place — and why these accidents continue to happen.

“There are things we can do,” he said. “And the things that we can do have been rebuffed, stopped, slowed down and stalled by the rail companies, the oil industry as well as the chemical industry.”

Garamendi said he wants to see Ohio politicians, as well as pols across the nation, stand up against these industries to provide protection for their own citizens.

He specifically called on newly elected Ohio U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, a Republican who has been outspoken in his criticism of Norfolk, to push legislation to make things safer for the community.

“(It’s) not enough to go down and say ‘Oh my, there’s contamination,'” Garamendi said. “Yes, there is, now go back and lead in the Senate to provide the leadership and push through the legislation.”

Andrew Dorn contributed to this article.


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