The nation’s top environmental official is headed to East Palestine, Ohio, where the state is opening a health clinic Tuesday as worry and frustration linger in the community more than two weeks after the fiery derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals.
US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan will return to the town Tuesday to meet with residents and local and state officials, an EPA official with knowledge of the visit told CNN.
The visit comes as skepticism and anxiety spread in the small town of 5,000 while reports mount of rashes, headaches, nausea and other symptoms that residents fear could be related to the February 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train and crews’ subsequent release of the toxic chemical vinyl chloride from the wreck.
The health clinic opening in East Palestine Tuesday is meant to address residents’s concerns about potential symptoms. It will have registered nurses, mental health specialists and, at times, a toxicologist, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
Medical teams from the US Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention and the US Department of Health are also expected to arrive in the community as early as this week to help assess what dangers remain.
Despite the reports of symptoms, authorities have repeatedly sought to assure residents that the air and water in the town are safe.
Crews have checked hundreds of homes and have not detected any dangerous levels of contaminants, the EPA said.
Similarly, samples of treated drinking water have not detected contaminants tied to the derailment, the Ohio Environment Protection Agency says.
Still, life has been upended in East Palestine as residents question the findings and whether their water is safe to drink or if the air is safe to breathe.
The EPA says it’ll continue monitoring air quality as work continues at the crash site to excavate contaminated soil and haul away the remaining rail cars.
“Air monitoring and sampling will continue until removal of heavily contaminated soil in the derailment area is complete and odors subside in the community,” the EPA said Sunday.
Dr. Erin Haynes, an environmental health scientist with the University of Kentucky, told CNN last week that it will be important to monitor people’s health and the environment around the train derailment for some time to come since health impacts may not emerge until later.
“We should never say we’re done looking at this community for potential exposures and health impacts. Some may not occur until later,” said Haynes, adding that anyone experiencing health symptoms should take them seriously and call the poison control center.
Water intakes in other cities temporarily shut off amid worries about contamination
Some waterways in the area of the derailment were contaminated after the crash, killing an estimated 3,500 fish, but officials have said they believe those contaminants to be contained.
Norfolk Southern installed booms and dams to restrict the flow of contaminated water from Sulphur Run and Leslie Run — two of the locations where fish were found dead, according to EPA.
“The spill did flow to the Ohio River during that initial slug, but the Ohio River is very large and it’s a water body that’s able to dilute the pollutants pretty quickly,” Ohio Environmental Protection Agency official Tiffany Kavalec said last week, adding that they’re pretty confident that the “low levels” of contaminants that remain are not getting passed onto customers.
A series of pumps have been placed upstream to reroute Sulphur Run around the derailment site, the train’s operator, Norfolk Southern, said Monday.
“Environmental teams are treating the impacted portions of Sulphur Run with booms, aeration, and carbon filtration units,” Norfolk Southern added. “Those teams are also working with stream experts to collect soil and groundwater samples to develop a comprehensive plan to address any contamination that remains in the stream banks and sediment.”
In the meantime, water intakes from the Ohio River that were shut off Sunday “as a precautionary measure” were reopened after sampling found “no detections of the specific chemicals from the train derailment,” according to news releases from the Greater Cincinnati Water Works and Northern Kentucky Water District.
A third utility company — Maysville Utilities in Kentucky– announced that it temporarily shut off water intakes from the Ohio River on Saturday, when the toxic chemicals released into the river from the derailment were expected to arrive at the water treatment intake in Kentucky, the utility’s General Manager Mark Julian said.
Julian said water measurements have been below the level of concern and that Maysville Utilities took precautionary measures in temporarily shutting down their Ohio River intake valve due to the public concern.
“The takeaway is that anyone along the Ohio River where the contaminants made their way can breathe a sigh of relief,” he said. “There’s little risk to our water supply from the train derailment site and temporarily shutting down the water treatment plant and not pulling from the river until the spill passed should give us all peace of mind.”
Meanwhile, the majority of the hazardous rail cars remain at the crash site as investigators continue to probe the wreck, but about 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil and 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water have been removed from the scene, Norfolk Southern announced Monday.
The contaminated soil became a particular point of contention last week after a public document sent to the EPA on February 10 did not list soil removal among completed cleanup activities. It is not yet known what significance or impact the soil that was not removed before the railroad reopened on February 8 will have had on the surrounding areas.
Some East Palestine businesses struggling
As skepticism spreads about the safety of the air and water, some local business say they’ve seen fewer customers, despite calls to return to normal life.
“Everybody’s afraid… They don’t want to come in and drink the water,” Teresa Sprowls, a restaurant owner in East Palestine, told CNN affiliate WOIO.
A stylist at a hair salon also told the station there’s no doubt the salon lost business and that customers may be worried about what may be in the water washing their hair.
“I know a lot of our businesses are already suffering greatly because people don’t want to come here,” local greenhouse owner Dianna Elzer told CNN affiliate WPXI.
Her husband, Donald Elzer, echoed her concerns, saying, “It’s devastating. The longer it goes on, the worse it gets.”
Dianna Elzer also worried about longer-term economic impacts to the small community.
“Our property values — Who is going to want to buy a house here now? It’s going to be a long struggle to get back to where we were,” Elzer said.
Norfolk Southern has committed to millions of dollars’ worth financial assistance to East Palestine, including $3.4 million in direct financial assistance to families, a $1 million community assistance fund, among other aid, according to the company.
A number of officials, including US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, have demanded accountability and called for greater safety regulations after the toxic derailment.
Norfolk Southern’s CEO Alan Shaw posted an open letter telling East Palestine residents, “I hear you” and “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.”
“Together with local health officials, we have implemented a comprehensive testing program to ensure the safety of East Palestine’s water, air, and soil,” Shaw said.
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.