By JOHN SEEWER and MICHAEL RUBINKAM
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (AP) — Federal environmental regulators on Tuesday took charge of the cleanup from the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment and chemical burn and ordered Norfolk Southern to foot the bill.
The Environmental Protection Agency told Norfolk Southern to take all available measures to clean up contaminated air and water, and also said the company would be required to reimburse the federal government for a new program to provide cleaning services for impacted residents and businesses.
The EPA warned Norfolk Southern that if failed to comply with its order, the agency would perform the work itself and seek triple damages from the company.
“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,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement ahead of a news conference with the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“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,” he said.
“In no way shape or form will Norfolk Southern get off the hook for the mess they created,” Regan said at the press conference.
He added that he knows the order “cannot undo the nightmare that families in this town have been living with, but it will begin to deliver much needed comfort for the pain that Norfolk Southern has caused.”
The agency said it would release more details on the cleanup service for residents and businesses this week.
The EPA said its order marks the end of the “emergency” phase of the derailment and the beginning of long-term remediation phase in the East Palestine area.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday also acknowledged the community’s concern that it will be left to handle the aftermath on its own once the news cameras leave and public attention turns elsewhere, and he assured residents that won’t be the case.
EPA issued the order under the so-called Superfund law that gives the agency authority to order those responsible for contamination or hazardous waste to clean it up. EPA can fine the railway up to $70,000 a day if the work is not completed. EPA can also do the work itself if necessary and bill Norfolk Southern triple its costs.
Appearing at the news conference with Regan, DeWine and other officials, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro blasted Norfolk Southern over what he called its “failed management of this crisis,” saying the company chose not to take part in a unified incident command, and provided inaccurate information and conflicting modeling data.
“The combination of Norfolk Southern’s corporate greed, incompetence, and lack of concern for our residents is absolutely unacceptable to me,” he said.
Shapiro said his administration had made a criminal referral of Norfolk Southern to the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, while DeWine said Ohio’s attorney general had also launched an investigation.
Separately, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced a package of reforms Tuesday, calling on railroad operators to take immediate steps to improve safety, such as accelerating the planned upgrade of tank cars.
Some 50 freight cars derailed on the outskirts of East Palestine, near the Pennsylvania state line, prompting persistent environmental and health concerns. The derailment prompted an evacuation as fears grew about a potential explosion of smoldering wreckage.
Officials seeking to avoid the danger of an uncontrolled blast chose to intentionally release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars, sending flames and black smoke again billowing high into the sky. That left left people questioning the potential health impacts for residents in the area and beyond, even as authorities maintained they were doing their best to protect people.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. AP writer Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.