EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Officials in Columbiana County held another briefing Thursday afternoon in the aftermath of last week's train derailment in East Palestine that released potentially hazardous chemicals into the air.
The press conference from the county emergency management agency as well as East Palestine's mayor and fire chief came after the evacuation order in the village was lifted on Wednesday. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine made the announcement Wednesday in conjunction with the East Palestine Fire Department and United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Less than 24 hours later, Fire Chief Keith Drabick expressed his gratitude for both his workers as well as those in and outside the community who have stepped up to help. Now, the process begins of figuring out what equipment the department can still use and which pieces have been potentially contaminated by the chemicals.
"All of our gear is out of service due to the fire," Drabick said, noting the department will be getting some backup gear from as far as South Carolina. "If you drive past the fire house, it looks much like a lot of other areas in this town: a disaster area."
Earlier this week, officials conducted a controlled release of chemicals after DeWine noted the contents of vinyl chloride in five of the rail cars were "currently unstable and could potentially explode, causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes." Due to these risks, all residents within a mile of the accident were ordered to leave under threat of arrest.
Though citizens are now allowed to return home, several are still nervous about doing so due to concerns over air quality. The EPA says all of their air and water readings inside the evacuation zone have come back normal, but people can still request personal readings in their homes by calling (330) 849-3913, and Columbiana County EMA Director Peggy Clark says roughly 300 such screenings have taken place so far.
"It takes about a half an hour to do each home," Clark explained. "They currently have four teams that are working 10 hours a day, so they're going to try to do that as quickly as they can, but please be patient."
In recent days, much of the attention has turned to the Norfolk Southern Railway, whose freight train was the one involved in the wreck. A lawsuit filed by residents this week accuses the company of negligence, and Mayor Trent R. Conway claimed he has talked to U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson and Sen. JD Vance about holding them accountable throughout the process.
"We're going to hold their feet to the fire," Conway said. He and others added the railroad has its own contractors on-site and that residents can request coverage of expenses by calling (800) 230-7049.
Still, local leaders have expressed their own frustrations with Norfolk Southern, including railroad crews clearing equipment from the crash scene with trucks that could potentially spread hazardous material to East Palestine roads. While the mayor says he was promised company street sweepers would rectify that issue "immediately," he also acknowledged his anger at NS now running trains on the line as soon as the order expired.
"Anybody who was in incident command last night can tell that I was not very happy with that," Conway said, telling reporters the railway had said operations wouldn't resume until all residents were back home. "Unless I go tie myself to the railroad tracks, that's about the only way I can stop them, and I'm not going to do that. ... I know they have a job to do; they have to get through town."
"This isn't going to get swept under the rug. I'm not going to be the country bumpkin that gets talked over by a big corporation. We're going to hold their feet to the fire. They're going to do what they said they're going to do and they're going to protect the people of this town."
Residents wishing to see the EPA's air and water quality readings for themselves can find them on epaosc.org. In addition, East Palestine schools remain closed while cleaning crews work to scrub and disinfect the buildings, with Conway saying that will continue through at least the end of the week. Most businesses are apparently back open, however.