February 16, 2023 The latest on the Ohio toxic train disaster

By Aditi Sangal, Adrienne Vogt and Matt Meyer, CNN

Updated 5:01 p.m. ET, February 21, 2023
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4:46 p.m. ET, February 16, 2023

Officials try to reassure East Palestine residents that they're focused on cleanup from toxic derailment

From CNN’s Samantha Beech

State and federal officials held a news conference Thursday in East Palestine, Ohio, as residents expressed frustration about the response to a train carrying potentially deadly materials that derailed in their hometown nearly two weeks ago.

Michael S. Regan, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, aimed to reassure residents authorities are focused on keeping them safe.

Regan arrived in East Palestine Thursday morning to assess the ongoing response to the February 3 train derailment and the controlled explosion of five railroad cars carrying the chemical vinyl chloride.

“This incident has understandably shaken this community to its core," Regan said. "The community has questions and they deserve answers. I want the community to know that we hear you, we see you, and that we will get to the bottom of this."

The massive aftermath of the derailment, including a blaze that lasted for days, led to the evacuation of many residents. The evacuation order was lifted on February 8 after air and water samples led officials to deem the area safe.

“Since the fire went out, EPA air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment,” Regan said. “EPA has assisted with the screening of more than 480 homes under the voluntary screening program offered to residents. And no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified. And we’re continuing to make those screenings available to any resident that wants to have their indoor air tested.”

Regan said the agency has full authority to use its enforcement capabilities over the crisis and it will stay there "as long as it takes" to ensure the community's safety.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown said he’s been in contact with the White House, the EPA, NTSB, CDC and the federal rail authority over the management of cleanup and testing. He pledged to hold the rail company Norfolk Southern accountable for everything from the cost of testing to moving expenses.

Norfolk Southern has expanded its $1,000 payment beyond residents who were within a mile of the evacuation zone and will now pay each resident in the entire 44413 zip code, a spokesman for the company told CNN on Wednesday.

Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson urged residents to contact his office if they need to be connected with authorities or if they are having issues getting their questions answered.

“No community should have to go through something like this," he said. "But you need to know that you’re not alone."

2:02 p.m. ET, February 16, 2023

Ohio governor requests immediate assistance from CDC

From CNN's Samantha Beech

 Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine meets with reporters in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 6.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine meets with reporters in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 6. (Gene J. Puskar/AP/File)

In an update on the situation in East Palestine, Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine said he has requested the immediate support of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost two weeks following the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals.

DeWine said he is requesting the CDC to “immediately” send medical experts to the area to evaluate and counsel community members “who have questions and/or are experiencing symptoms."

Here are some updates he shared on the chemicals being monitored:

  • In anticipation of rainfall, emergency response teams are planning to prevent contaminants still present at the derailment site from washing into local waterways during the storms.
  • A chemical plume of butyl acrylate in the Ohio River is currently located near Gallipolis, Ohio, and will be near Huntington, West Virginia, sometime tomorrow. Testing results indicate that the chemical is currently well below a level the CDC considers hazardous.
  • No vinyl chloride has been detected in the Ohio River, but agencies will continue sampling water in the Ohio River out of an abundance of caution. 
  • The Environmental Protection Agency's latest air monitoring reports continue to show no presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the train crash. EPA and an independent contractor will continue monitoring air quality inside homes after residents requested testing. 
  • No additional reports of deceased wildlife beyond the current standing estimates of about 3,500 aquatic animals killed.
  • The Ohio Department of Agriculture assures that its food supply is safe and the risk to livestock remains low.
2:01 p.m. ET, February 16, 2023

Biden administration offers Health and Human Services and CDC support to impacted Ohio village

From CNN's Betsy Klein

The Biden administration has offered support from the Department of Health and Human Services and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to East Palestine, Ohio, where there is growing concern from residents and advocates about the health and safety of drinking water following the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials earlier this month.

GOP Gov. Mike DeWine “asked for additional public health testing and assessments,” and teams from HHS and CDC are being deployed “now," according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Jean-Pierre suggested that the needs in East Palestine are “much more expansive” than what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “can meet,” explaining that the situation in East Palestine is “very different” from the aftermath of a natural disaster. Though, she added, FEMA is still offering support.

HHS, the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency are working together with the Emergency Operations Center and the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, she said. The National Transportation Safety Board is also working on an investigation into the derailment.

She reiterated the White House stance that the “top priority” is “the health and safety of the community.” 

Federal agencies, she said, are “working to get to the bottom of what caused the derailment, monitoring air quality, collecting soil samples, testing surface and groundwater for any content contaminant.”

Jean-Pierre suggested concern from the East Palestine residents is “understandable” as she offered a message to the community that “we’re going to get through this together.”

12:47 p.m. ET, February 16, 2023

EPA chief pledges to hold company accountable over toxic train disaster 

From CNN's Samantha Beech

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan speaks to CNN on Thursday.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan speaks to CNN on Thursday. (CNN)

The head of the US Environmental Protection Agency told CNN the agency plans to hold the train company Norfolk Southern accountable as investigations continue into the derailment of a train carrying hazardous chemicals earlier this month in a small Ohio town.

The EPA issued a notice of accountability to the company, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan told CNN on Thursday, adding that the company has signed it, indicating that it will responsible for the cleanup.

Residents in East Palestine, Ohio, expressed frustration at a community meeting late Wednesday after the train’s operator didn’t appear – and continued to voice their mounting distrust in assurances of their safety. The company did plan on attending Wednesday night’s meeting but backed out, citing threats against its employees.

Regan said he was "extremely disappointed" that the company representatives didn't show up at the town hall meeting, saying the community deserves transparency and the latest information.

"It’s our job, as the federal government, to hold this company accountable and I promise you we will,” he said.

Residents express worries over health: When asked about anecdotal reports of people getting headaches and sore throats, and of animals, such as cats and chickens, dying near the train derailment, Ohio Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said Tuesday that air quality does not appear the source. 

About 3,500 fish have died in Ohio’s waterways after the train derailment on February 3, according to Mary Mertz, the director of Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources. Mertz said Tuesday that none of the 12 species affected are endangered or threatened, but it’s “still a loss of life, all the same.” The estimation of the dead fish came after initial testing and sampling by the state agency, Mertz said. She added that there does not appear to have been an increase in the number of fish killed since the first couple of days following the derailment.

Regan has invited residents to report "any kind of adverse symptom" they experience so it can be gathered to request help from state health department.

Meanwhile, the EPA is “testing for the full breadth of toxic chemicals that were on that train that was spilled," to determine any impact that could result from the spillage, he said.

12:02 p.m. ET, February 16, 2023

Ohio governor requests federal assistance in the train derailment aftermath

From CNN's Kristina Sgueglia

After speaking to White House officials, the Ohio governor said he has requested assistance from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Health and Emergency Response Team, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Gov. Mike DeWine has been in daily contact with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but the agency says the state is not eligible for assistance at this time, a press release from his office said.

DeWine has asked the three federal organizations to provide on-ground assistance in East Palestine where a train derailed exposing the community to hazardous materials. 

12:02 p.m. ET, February 16, 2023

Senators send letters to EPA and NTSB demanding answers over Ohio train derailment 

From CNN's Samantha Beech

As part of cleanup operations, booms are placed in a stream Wednesday that flows through the center of East Palestine, Ohio.
As part of cleanup operations, booms are placed in a stream Wednesday that flows through the center of East Palestine, Ohio. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Four senators have signed letters to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), pushing for answers after a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed almost two weeks ago in a small Ohio town. 

Ohio Senators JD Vance and Sherrod Brown and Pennsylvania Senators Bob Casey and John Fetterman thanked the EPA for its swift response following the February 3 incident. Their letter requests more information about the agency’s plans and ability to respond to the derailment. It also asks for any information about long-term effects on the environment and how the rail company Norfolk Southern would be held accountable.

The aftermath of the derailment – including a blaze that lasted for days – led to the evacuation of many residents. And although the evacuation orders ended on February 8, a chemical odor lingered days afterward and officials estimate thousands of fish were killed by contamination washing down streams and rivers, fueling residents’ concerns about water and air safety.

Michael S. Regan, the head of the EPA, is expected to travel to the town of East Palestine on Thursday, the agency said, to meet with state and local officials and residents and to assess the federal response to the derailment.

The four senators also sent a letter Thursday to the chair of the NTSB highlighting rail safety concerns as the agency conducts its own investigation. The letter said the senators intend to use NTSB's findings and any pertinent safety recommendations to advance measures that Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation can implement to prevent derailments involving hazardous materials.

12:57 p.m. ET, February 16, 2023

Ohio residents returning home worry about chemical threats lingering from train derailment

From CNN's Brenda Goodman and Kyla Russell

Railcars are seen last week in East Palestine, Ohio.
Railcars are seen last week in East Palestine, Ohio. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Five of the tankers on the train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, last week were carrying liquid vinyl chloride, which is extremely combustible. A controlled burn was conducted to mitigate the danger and it worked.

Authorities assured the residents that any immediate danger had passed as they lifted the evacuation order for East Palestine residents. Real-time air readings, which use handheld instruments to broadly screen for classes of contaminants like volatile organic compounds, showed that the air quality near the site was within normal limits.

Up to this point, officials have been looking for large immediate threats: explosions or chemical levels that could make someone acutely ill. But the cleanup and monitoring of the site could take years, an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency official said.

Although the explosion risk is past, people who live in East Palestine want to know about the chemical threats that might linger.

Fish and frogs have died in local streams. People have reported dead chickens and shared photos of dead dogs and foxes on social media. They say they smell chemical odors around town.

When asked at a briefing about exactly what spilled, representatives from Norfolk Southern listed butyl acrylate, vinyl chloride and a small amount of non-hazardous lube oil.

About the chemicals: Butyl acrylate is a clear, colorless liquid with a strong, fruity odor that’s used to make plastics and paint. It’s possible to inhale it, ingest it or absorb it through the skin. It irritates the eyes, skin and lungs and may cause shortness of breath, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Repeated exposure can lead to lung damage.

Vinyl chloride, which is used to make PVC pipes, can cause dizziness, sleepiness and headaches. It has also been linked to an increased risk of cancer in the liver, brain, lungs and blood.

Although butyl acrylate easily mixes with water and will move quickly through the environment, it isn’t especially toxic to humans, said Richard Peltier, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Vinyl chloride, however, is very toxic and very persistent in the environment, and it can form some really awful combustion byproducts, Peltier said.

A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern acknowledged but did not respond to CNN’s request for more information on how much of these chemicals spilled into the soil and water. The Ohio EPA says it’s not sure yet, either.

“We’re definitely signing up for the air testing of the home before we get in there,” said resident Ben Ratner.

12:56 p.m. ET, February 16, 2023

The derailed train wreckage burned for days as Ohio authorities worried about the risk of explosion

From CNN's Greg Wallace and Laura Ly

A plume of smoke is seen after a controlled detonation in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 6.
A plume of smoke is seen after a controlled detonation in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 6. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Investigators probing the toxic train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, are reviewing multiple videos of the train prior to it derailing.

Investigators have not yet determined what they believe caused the disaster. Such a determination typically takes many months.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it is reviewing other videos, too, including footage from two local businesses reported by local media that showed glowing or flames from the train prior to the derailment.

The agency is also reviewing recording data from the train’s so-called black boxes, including an event recorder and image recorders.

The train was carrying hazardous materials, including the toxic chemical vinyl chloride. It derailed February 3, prompting evacuation orders for residents in the village of 5,000 people near the Pennsylvania border.

The wreckage burned for days as authorities worried about the possibility of a widespread, deadly explosion. But crews managed controlled detonations to release the chemical, which can kill quickly at high levels and increase cancer risk. The hazardous substance spilled into a trench, where it was burned away.