EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (NewsNation) — Nearly three weeks after the train derailment in East Palestine, many residents remain skeptical about the safety of their drinking water.
Some believe the government’s response has been delayed and that reports of the initial water testing — upon which the decision to give the “all clear” was made — were in conjunction with and funded by Norfolk Southern.
The Feb. 3 derailment sent plumes of smoke from burning chemicals into the air and water. The Norfolk Southern train had 11 cars carrying hazardous chemicals, and officials intentionally released one chemical, vinyl chloride, to prevent an uncontrolled explosion.
When asked by NewsNation about those reports during a Tuesday news conference, Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine deferred to the state’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director, Anne Vogel. She confirmed the testing was previously done in conjunction with Norfolk Southern at first. But beginning Tuesday, the EPA will do its own independent testing.
Further seeking to quell concerns over the safety of the town’s water, DeWine and Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson (Ohio-6) drank the water during a joint appearance. The scene was eerily similar to when former U.S. President Barack Obama drank tap water on camera during the Flint, Michigan water crisis in 2016.
DeWine and EPA administrator Michael Regan on Tuesday visited a pop-up health clinic established in East Palestine for residents with health concerns, as some have complained of difficulty breathing and skin rashes.
In response to criticism over his handling of the situation, embattled Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said Tuesday he would visit the crash site when “the time is right.”
“To be clear, our department was on the ground within hours,” he said. “I could have spoken out sooner, but I am focused on the actions that will make a difference.”
Local leaders also promised Tuesday they would hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the costs associated with the disaster and would be monitoring to ensure cleanup efforts were acceptable.
“In the face of Norfolk Southern’s arrogance and incompetence, I want you to know we are fighting back,” Shapiro said. He added that a criminal referral had been made to the state’s attorney general regarding the disaster.
Norfolk Southern will be responsible for paying for cleanup, Regan said, and the EPA is ordering the company to clean up all contamination in soil and water and safely transport that material to appropriate locations to avoid further impacts on residents.
The company is also being ordered to reimburse the EPA for all cleaning costs associated with cleaning up homes and businesses in the area, and to share information with the public. The EPA will be required to approve Norfolk Southern’s work plan.
If Norfolk Southern fails to do that, Regan pledged the EPA would step in to conduct the cleanup and the company would be required to reimburse the agency for three times the costs of the work.
Norfolk Southern will also be responsible for reimbursing Pennsylvania fire departments for any equipment contaminated during the disaster response, as well as paying for any cleanup that is required.
“The combination of Norfolk Southern’s corporate greed, incompetence, and lack of care for our residents is unacceptable,” Shapiro said.
In a statement, Norfolk Southern said it recognizes it has a responsibility to “do what’s right” for East Palestine residents.
“We have been paying for the clean-up activities to date and will continue to do so. We are committed to thoroughly and safely cleaning the site, and we are reimbursing residents for the disruption this has caused in their lives,” Norfolk said in a statement. “We are investing in helping East Palestine thrive for the long term, and we will continue to be in the community for as long as it takes. We are going to learn from this terrible accident and work with regulators and elected officials to improve railroad safety.”
Norfolk launched a website, NSMakingitRight.com, as another resource, a statement from the company said.
Congress needs to take a hard look at rail safety, DeWine said, especially the lack of regulation that allows rail companies to haul hazardous materials through communities without notifying state and local officials.
“We’re asking Congress to hold hearings. We’re asking Congress to take action,” DeWine said.
Residents in the immediate area were evacuated, but not all are convinced it is safe to return to their homes. Many are still worrying about toxic residue and contaminated air and water.
Some don’t want to return at all. Steve McCay lives just 1,200 feet away from the crash site and is now hoping to sell his home.
“My oldest just turned 5, my daughter is 8 months,” McCay told NewsNation. “I can’t bring them back here. (The chemicals are) known carcinogens, can cause nervous system issues, infertility. What kind of parent would I be if I didn’t protect my kids?”
Regan is expected to talk more about holding Norfolk Southern accountable for the train derailment. The company’s CEO has promised he will make things right, but many in the community are skeptical of the multimillionaire’s claims.
Former President Donald Trump said he will visit East Palestine on Wednesday, and schools are already planning to close because of the added security measures.