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Ohio officials say air quality in East Palestine is fine but not to drink the water

Gov. Mike DeWine talks about East Palestine train derailment clean up efforts
Jo Ingles
Statehouse News Bureau
Gov. Mike DeWine talks about East Palestine train derailment clean up efforts

State health, safety and environmental officials said the air quality in and around East Palestine is what it was before authorities conducted a controlled burn of vinyl chloride from an tanker involved in a 150-car train derailment. That burn on February 7 produced a black cloud that could be seen for miles.

State leaders said they’re also watching water from the area following the toxic chemical release in that community along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said air quality testing shows it is the same as it was before. But Tiffani Kavalec, chief of Division of Surface Water for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), said they’re watching the cloud and how it could affect water systems.

“We know that there is a plume moving down the Ohio River,” Kavalec said.

Kavalec said water systems are being shut down as that plume goes over an area and testing is taking place to make sure the water is safe.

Residents of East Palestine are being advised to drink bottled water for now. Vanderhoff said water from the municipal system appears to be fine but more extensive testing is ongoing. But he said people with private wells should get them tested. He said they can do so by calling 330-849-3919.

Remediation work is continuing in the area that was affected by the hazardous vinyl chloride spill. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates 3,500 fish from 12 different species were discovered dead after the toxic chemical release.

There have also been reports of dead animals being found around the East Palestine area. Dr. Dennis Summers, the chief of the Division of Animal Health, said anyone who thinks a pet or wild animal may have died from the incident should first contact their veterinarian. He said the state can take over testing after that point.

DeWine said Norfolk Southern has assured him the railroad would stay there "until everything was cleaned up,” and that the company will be paying for it. He suggested if the railroad doesn’t pay the costs, the state could file a lawsuit.

Norfolk Southern said in a press release it’s provided $1 million in relief so far, including $1,000 checks to some East Palestine area residents who had to evacuate, to help with their expenses. DeWine said he's not sure but he doesn't think anyone who cashes that check is waiving the option of future legal action to do that. DeWine warned the railroad needs to stick with its end of the bargain.

And Vanderhoff said multiple state agencies are watching the environmental and health risks from this disaster and are not allowing any "wiggle room" when it comes to safety.

Five of the cars were carrying vinyl chloride, a potential carcinogen, and four other cars were carrying four other chemicals. DeWine said he learned from the Public Utilities Commission that the train wasn’t considered a high hazardous material train, because most of the cars didn’t have hazardous materials in them. DeWine called that “absurd” and said Congress should look into that and take “appropriate action”.

DeWine said President Biden as well as senators and representatives from Ohio have been reaching out to offer help. But he said he doesn’t feel further assistance is needed now.

DeWine also told reporters that he had spoken with his Adjutant General, Major General John Harris, about the incident that happened last week when a national television news reporter, Evan Lambert of NewsNation, was handcuffed and arrested. DeWine has maintained there was no reason for the reporter to be arrested. Local officials, in a statement, said they had arrested Lambert after he refused to leave the news conference following an argument with Harris. DeWine said Harris feels bad about his role in the incident. DeWine is asking for the charges to be dropped.

Contact Jo Ingles at jingles@statehousenews.org.