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CNN anchor asks Ohio lawmaker if he would drink the water in East Palestine
01:52 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office will investigate the toxic derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train after receiving a criminal referral from state environmental officials.

“Our office has been monitoring the train derailment in East Palestine and we are outraged on behalf of the residents who have suffered the consequences of this catastrophe,” the office of acting Attorney General Michelle Henry wrote in a statement Tuesday.

The February 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio – near the border with Pennsylvania – led to evacuations in both states.

It ignited a dayslong inferno, shot plumes of black smoke into the air and led to the intentional release of vinyl chloride to help avert a more catastrophic blast.

Henry’s office received a criminal referral from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and “will act quickly to investigate this incident, gather the facts, and then evaluate the evidence to make a determination under Pennsylvania law,” the statement said.

“Pennsylvanians have a constitutional right to clean air and pure water, and we will not hesitate to hold anyone or any company responsible for environmental crimes in our Commonwealth.”

Norfolk Southern spokesperson Katie Byrd declined to comment specifically on the criminal referral.

“I think our actions to work with local, state, and federal leaders from the beginning, support the community, and lead on environmental remediation speak for themselves for the moment,” Byrd said in an email to CNN.

In Ohio, the state attorney general is also reviewing all actions the law “allows him to take,” Gov. Mike DeWine said.

And the US Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Norfolk Southern to handle and pay for all necessary cleanup in a legally binding order that will take effect Thursday.

“Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning the mess that they created and the trauma that they inflicted on this community,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Tuesday.

As part of the EPA’s legally binding order, Norfolk Southern will be required to:

• Identify and clean up any contaminated soil and water resources,

• Reimburse the EPA for cleaning services to be offered to residents and businesses to provide an additional layer of reassurance, which will be conducted by EPA staff and contractors,

• Attend and participate in public meetings at the EPA’s request and post information online, and

• Pay for the EPA’s costs for work performed under the order.

“In no way, shape or form will Norfolk Southern get off the hook for the mess that they created,” Regan said.

If the rail company fails to meet the demands, the EPA said it will immediately step in, conduct the necessary work and then seek to compel Norfolk Southern to pay triple the cost.

“We recognize that we have a responsibility, and we have committed to doing what’s right for the residents of East Palestine,” Norfolk Southern said in a statement to CNN, in response to the EPA’s announcement.

“We have been paying for the clean-up activities to date and will continue to do so. We are committed to thoroughly and safely cleaning the site, and we are reimbursing residents for the disruption this has caused in their lives. We are investing in helping East Palestine thrive for the long-term, and we will continue to be in the community for as long as it takes. We are going to learn from this terrible accident and work with regulators and elected officials to improve railroad safety.”

Preliminary report to be released this week

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has been probing the wreck, will issue its initial investigative findings, a source familiar with the investigation told CNN on Tuesday.

The preliminary report, which the source described as a “tight presentation of the facts,” comes amid mounting questions about not only the company’s handling of the incident, but also the mechanical failures that preceded it.

NTSB preliminary reports do not include a definitive cause nor draw conclusions but investigators have said surveillance video captured a train wheel bearing “in the final stages of overheat failure moments before the derailment.”

Norfolk Southern CEO speaks with CNN

In a Tuesday interview with CNN, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said his company has been aligned with local efforts and the actions of the EPA.

“From day one I’ve made the commitment that Norfolk Southern is going to remediate the site,” Shaw said. “We’re going to do it through continuous long-term air and water monitoring. We’re going to help the residents of this community recover and we’re going to invest in the long-term health of this community and we’re going to make Norfolk Southern a safer railroad.”

“We’re also very focused on reimbursing the residents in this community for what they’ve been through,” he said.

Norfolk Southern has committed millions of dollars’ worth of financial assistance to East Palestine, including $3.4 million in direct financial assistance to families and a $1 million community assistance fund, among other aid, the company has said.

When asked about the criminal referral mentioned by Pennsylvania’s governor and his criticism of the company, Shaw said he had not watched the news conference where the comments were made and could not respond accordingly.

The governor and the EPA chief toast with tap water

From left, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, EPA Administrator Michael Regan and US Rep. Bill Johnson drink tap water poured directly from a faucet Tuesday from a home in East Palestine.

Also Tuesday, Regan and Gov. Mike DeWine visited an East Palestine home and tried to reassure residents that the municipal water supply is safe.

They raised two glasses filled with water straight from the tap and toasted before drinking.

The municipal water supply comes from five wells deep underground that are encased in steel, state officials have said. But residents with private well water should get that water tested before using it, since it may be sourced closer to the ground’s surface.

“State and local authorities will continue the water sampling efforts, and EPA will continue indoor air screenings to residents within the evacuation zone,” Regan said Tuesday.

But “I recognize that no matter how much data we collect or provide, it will not be enough to completely reassure everybody,” the EPA chief said.

At a Tuesday afternoon news conference, DeWine said it was “absurd” that the law does not require the railroad company to notify local or state officials that a train with hazardous materials would come through the state.

“We’re asking Congress to hold hearings (and) take action in this area,” he added.

Ohio opens a new health clinic in East Palestine

To address the growing reports of rashes, headaches, nausea and other symptoms in East Palestine, the state opened a new health clinic for residents.

The health clinic will have registered nurses, mental health specialists and – at times – a toxicologist, the Ohio Department of Health said.

Medical teams from the US Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention and the US Department of Health are expected to arrive in the community as early as this week to help assess what dangers might remain.

Authorities have repeatedly assured residents that the air and municipal water supply in the town are safe. Crews have checked hundreds of homes and have not detected any dangerous levels of contaminants, the EPA said.

But with lingering skepticism about air and water safety, some businesses say they’ve seen fewer customers.

“Everybody’s afraid … They don’t want to come in and drink the water,” Teresa Sprowls, a restaurant owner in East Palestine, told CNN affiliate WOIO.

A stylist at a hair salon told WOIO there’s no doubt the salon lost business and that customers may be worried about what may be in the water washing their hair.

“We need our town cleaned up, we need our residents to feel safe in their homes,” East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said during Tuesday’s news conference. “Your home is your sanctuary: if you don’t feel safe in your home, then you’re never going to feel safe anywhere.”

Water intakes in other cities temporarily shut amid contamination concerns

Petroleum based chemicals float on the top of the water in Leslie Run creek after being agitated from the sediment on Monday in East Palestine.

Some waterways were contaminated after the crash, killing an estimated 3,500 fish. But officials have said they believe those contaminants have been contained.

Norfolk Southern installed booms and dams to restrict the flow of contaminated water from Sulphur Run and Leslie Run – two streams where fish were found dead, the EPA said.

“The spill did flow to the Ohio River during that initial slug, but the Ohio River is very large, and it’s a water body that’s able to dilute the pollutants pretty quickly,” Ohio Environmental Protection Agency official Tiffani Kavalec said last week, adding the agency is pretty confident any remaining “low levels” of contaminants are not being passed to water customers.

A series of pumps have been placed upstream to reroute Sulphur Run around the derailment site, Norfolk Southern said Monday.

“Environmental teams are treating the impacted portions of Sulphur Run with booms, aeration, and carbon filtration units,” Norfolk Southern added. “Those teams are also working with stream experts to collect soil and groundwater samples to develop a comprehensive plan to address any contamination that remains in the stream banks and sediment.”

Water intakes from the Ohio River that were shut off Sunday “as a precautionary measure” were reopened after sampling found “no detections of the specific chemicals from the train derailment,” the Greater Cincinnati Water Works and Northern Kentucky Water District said Monday.

A member of Ohio EPA Emergency Response looks for fish at Leslie Run creek and checks for chemicals in East Palestine on Monday.

Contaminated soil lingers in East Palestine

At the derailment site, roughly 15 cars remain while investigators probe the wreck, Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker said.

The soil under the railroad track at the site of the wreck is still contaminated and the tracks need to be lifted to remove that soil, the director of Ohio’s EPA said Tuesday.

The governor acknowledged residents’ concerns about the soil and said 4,588 cubic yards of soil and 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water have been removed from East Palestine.

“The railroad got the tracks back on and started running and the soil under the tracks had not been dealt with,” DeWine said. “The tracks will have to be taken up, and that soil will have to be removed.”

The contaminated soil became a point of contention last week after a public document sent to the EPA on February 10 did not list soil removal among completed cleanup activities. It is not yet known what significance or impact the soil that was not removed before the railroad reopened on February 8 will have had on the surrounding areas.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Ohio Environmental Protection Agency official Tiffani Kavalec.

CNN’s Christina Maxouris, Artemis Moshtaghian, Yon Pomrenze, Linh Tran, Elizabeth Hartfield, Brenda Goodman, Jen Christensen, Maegan Vazquez, Sabrina Souza, Pete Muntean and Nicki Brown contributed to this report.