Nearly four weeks after a freight train derailed near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border with a cargo of toxic chemicals, the dozens of tests and visits from high-ranking government officials and politicians to East Palestine have done little to assuage the anxiety and mistrust of a town rattled by the threat of long-term chemical exposure.
On Thursday evening, several of the town’s residents are expected to have the opportunity to publicly confront officials from Norfolk Southern, the operator of the freight train, about the decision to burn off the train’s chemical cargo and the possible damage done to their community.
Officials from the company had abruptly backed out of a similar meeting last month, citing unspecified fears about the safety of their employees. And while the company’s chief executive, Alan H. Shaw, separately made a trip to meet with local officials and some railroad employees last month, the meeting in East Palestine High School on Thursday sets up the largest public confrontation yet between the community and the railroad company.
It comes as Norfolk Southern and Mr. Shaw have faced a barrage of demands and intensifying scrutiny from lawmakers and officials furious not only over the derailment, but also the consequences of the decision to burn off some of the toxic chemicals carried by the train. Officials at the time said it was a necessary decision given the threat of a deadly explosion from heated chemicals in the train.
The E.P.A. has since issued an order that not only demands the company pay for all cleanup associated with the disaster, but also requires the company to “attend and participate in public meetings at E.P.A.’s request” — including the meeting on Thursday evening. And Mr. Shaw is set to testify before a key Senate committee next week as lawmakers and state officials demand more information about what led to the derailment and the possible long-term impacts on the region’s environment and public health.
President Biden, speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill after meeting with Senate Democrats, said that he “would be out there at some point” when asked if he would visit Ohio.
Both residents and rail workers have focused their concerns about the possibility of harmful exposure to the train’s cargo, which included vinyl chloride, a flammable gas, and any other chemicals that seeped into the community. In the days after the derailment, residents complained about migraines, rashes and a persisting chemical odor, even as preliminary data from government officials did not show significant levels of vinyl chloride or other dangerous chemicals.
Jonathon Long, the chairman of the union branch that represents Norfolk Southern employees, including those working to help clean up the site of the derailment, wrote to Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio condemning the railroad company and its treatment of its workers. He said he was told that some of the workers were not given appropriate protective gear to wear, despite the threat of possible exposure to vinyl chloride and other chemicals, and others continued to complain about migraines and nausea days after the derailment.
A spokesperson for the railroad company did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but previously told CNBC that the company “coordinated our response with hazardous material professionals who were on site continuously to ensure the work area was safe to enter,” along with using required protective equipment.
Lisa Friedman contributed reporting.
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