EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — With evacuated residents awaiting word on when they can return home, officials held a press conference Tuesday evening to provide the latest updates regarding the train derailment in East Palestine.
Although no timetable for displaced residents to return home was given, officials indicated there may be room for optimism. "We've had an incredibly productive day doing sampling," said Columbiana County Emergency Management Director Peggy Clark. "We expect to get the results later tonight and hopefully we'll have some good news for everybody tomorrow (Wednesday) morning."
Amid the anxiety and frustration that many of his residents are feeling as they wait to return to their homes, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway expressed pride in the community. "Everybody's just on edge. But we appreciate how everybody has handled this so far. The majority of residents really have understood what's going on here. This is new to all of us. We're doing the best we can."
Conaway also stressed that his administration will be holding Norfolk Southern accountable for its role in the derailment. "We're going to demand that there's constant monitoring. It was an accident, but Norfolk Southern is going to be responsible for it. They're going to take care of it and we're going to make sure that happens."
Earlier on Tuesday, authorities from the railroad as well as the village, the state, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency said the fire pit is out and all five cars containing the dangerous chemical vinyl chloride were no longer burning. Four of the cars have since been removed for further inspection by the National Transportation Safety Board, with crews waiting to move the last one.
Tuesday's updates came one day after officials conducted a controlled release of chemicals as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine noted the contents of five rail cars were "currently unstable and could potentially explode, causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes." By Monday evening, Scott Deutsch of the Norfolk Southern Railway said they were "very pleased" with the result.
"The detonation went perfect and we're already to a point where the cars are safe," Deutsch said. "They were not safe prior to this (controlled release)."
Drone footage from Photography Matters LLC captured the moment when an explosion sparked the start of the controlled release. You can see the footage below:
Residents within a one-mile radius of the crash, which occurred Friday, were ordered to evacuate under threat of arrest. While the situation appears to be improving, there is still no timeline as to when those people can return to their homes, and officials are still collecting data on air quality and increasing their overall monitoring.
"We did not detect anything of significance on-site outside the evacuation area," James Justice from the U.S. EPA told reporters. "We did respond to a number of concerns of people noticing odors and smoke in other areas, and we sent teams combined to collect readings there. We didn't find any levels of concern at that time."
Toward the end of the first press conference, East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick became frustrated with a line of questioning about when the evacuation order might end, refusing to offer any specifics until "experts" provided him with more information.
"I want nothing more than to get my residents back home," Drabick said. "I can't do that without that data. ... I'm not a subject matter expert on that; I'm a fireman."
Following the exchange, Drabick and public information officials abruptly ended the briefing. You can watch remarks from all officials in the player below:
Norfolk Southern also later released the following statement:
"Early this morning, Norfolk Southern and its contractors began clearing the site of derailed cars and continuing environmental remediation efforts. As of this afternoon, several cars have been cleared from the wreckage, and our team is continuing to clear the site. The National Transportation Safety Board will inspect the cars at a staging area, and once they are cleared, we will completely remove them from the area. Norfolk Southern is partnering with local and state officials to refine the remediation plan as necessary and working around the clock to clear the site. Air, soil, and water monitoring continues at the site of the incident and within the evacuation zone in coordination with state and federal agencies. Our Family Assistance Center (FAC) remains open for community members. We are also assisting local business owners with questions through the FAC, and when the evacuation concludes, representatives from Norfolk Southern plan to remain in the community to further assist residents and business owners. "
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