CNN town hall on toxic train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio

By Elise Hammond, Tori B. Powell and Amir Vera, CNN

Updated 12:48 a.m. ET, February 23, 2023
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8:29 p.m. ET, February 22, 2023

Officials drink tap water in East Palestine residents' homes to reassure public that water supply is safe

From CNN’s Linh Tran

Mike DeWine and Michael Regan visiting the home of resident Carolyn Brown on Tuesday, February 21.
Mike DeWine and Michael Regan visiting the home of resident Carolyn Brown on Tuesday, February 21. (CNN)

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and EPA administrator Michael Regan visited the homes of East Palestine residents on Tuesday to listen to their concerns and conduct air quality tests. The visit comes after municipal water sample results in the city showed "no water quality concerns," according to the EPA.

The officials first visited resident Carolyn Brown's home, where they poured two glasses of water from her tap and took a sip.

During the visit, Regan promised transparency, saying that “we will continue to show up.”

They then went to the home of East Palestine resident Andris Baltputnis, a former chemistry teacher. Again, they drank water from his tap.

“We are in this for the long haul,” the governor told Baltputnis.

The resident said assurance and reassurance in the community are good, and he “couldn’t hardly ask for anything more.” 

The officials performed an air quality reading at Baltputnis’ home, showing the reading for the toxins in the air as zero.

8:11 p.m. ET, February 22, 2023

Here are the 6 things to know about the toxic train derailment in Ohio

From CNN's Ella Nilsen

Booms are placed in a stream that flows through the center of East Palestine, Ohio, on Wednesday, February 15, as cleanup continues following the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train over a week ago.
Booms are placed in a stream that flows through the center of East Palestine, Ohio, on Wednesday, February 15, as cleanup continues following the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train over a week ago. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

CNN answers six key questions on the derailment of the train carrying hazardous material earlier in February:

Why are hazardous materials transported by train?

This is in large part because railroads are considered the safest mode of transportation to carry large amounts of hazardous materials, including chemicals, for long distances across the country, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. America’s freight trains moved 2.2 million carloads of chemicals in 2021, according to the Association of American Railroads.

How often does this kind of incident happen?

Federal Rail Administration data provided to CNN showed 149 incidents where hazardous materials were released from moving trains over the past decade. It’s important to note the federal data is being self-reported by train companies, making it tough to verify all the information is accurate.

How do officials measure the damage and impact?

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials have been conducting air, soil and water tests since the controlled explosion of the chemicals inside the rail cars.

The EPA said Tuesday there were chemicals spilled into the local waterways that lead to the Ohio River, but that much of it was contained. An initial plume of chemicals that was spilled into the waterway had made it to the Ohio River, but officials said they exist in very low concentration, and they are working with water facilities on enhanced filtration so they are not passed onto water customers.

That said, EPA and Ohio state officials urged residents in East Palestine to continue to drink bottled water for now.

If animals are dying, what does that mean for humans?

The chemical spill took a severe toll on local aquatic life: About 3,500 fish ranging across 12 species died from the water contamination washing down streams and rivers. Anecdotal reports of pets and chickens dying have not yet been confirmed by officials. Mary Mertz, the director of Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources, said Tuesday there’s no evidence that non-aquatic species have been affected by the spill.

What goes into cleaning up?

Ohio EPA and state officials have done several different things to try to contain pollution from the chemical spill.

  • Crews have put oil containment booms in waterways and aerated contaminated soil and water.
  • Crews have excavated and removed nearly 500 cubic yards of “vinyl chloride-impacted material” including soil, according to Kurt Kollar, the on-scene coordinator for the Ohio EPA’s Office of Emergency Response.
  • The EPA is blocking off ditches around the contaminated dirt so that it doesn’t contaminate more water.
  • The EPA also said it has collected and stored nearly one million gallons of water in containers.
  • Officials said water treatment facilities should be able to remove the remaining low levels of volatile organic compounds in the water, and that the water will eventually be safe to drink.

What are the possible long-term impacts?

In addition to the chemicals officials say should break down with aeration and water treatment, environmental officials also need to test for PFAS – a long-lasting and potentially more worrying class of chemicals used to put out chemical fires. PFAS is typically found on non-stick pans and in some firefighting foams.

Read more details here.

9:05 p.m. ET, February 22, 2023

Norfolk Southern CEO, EPA Administrator and Ohio governor will take part in CNN town hall

From CNN's Elizabeth Hartfield

Top officials from the state of Ohio, Norfolk Southern and the Environmental Protection Agency will take part in CNN's town hall Wednesday night.  

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Alan Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern, are all set to take part in the town hall, which airs at 9 p.m. ET and will be moderated by Jake Tapper. 

Additionally, several local and state officials, including Anne Vogel, director of the Ohio EPA and Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, the director of the Ohio Department of Health. 

This post has been updated with the latest details on those who will take part in the town hall.

11:05 p.m. ET, February 22, 2023

Here's what happened when a freight train derailment in eastern Ohio sparked a massive fire

CNN staff

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains on Monday, February 6.
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains on Monday, February 6. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

A Norfolk Southern train with more than 100 cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, sparking a massive fire and prompting evacuation orders.

There were 20 cars with hazardous material in the train – 10 of which derailed. Five of the tankers were carrying liquid vinyl chloride, which is extremely combustible.

The wreckage burned for days in the town, which is located about 15 miles south of Youngstown, as authorities worried about the possibility of a widespread, deadly explosion. But crews managed controlled detonations to release the chemical, which can kill quickly at high levels and increase cancer risk. The hazardous substance spilled into a trench, where it was burned away.

Officials issued a shelter-in-place order for the entire town of roughly 5,000 people, while the evacuation order was in effect for days for those within a mile of the train incident.

Authorities have since assured residents that any immediate danger has passed as they lifted the evacuation order for those living in East Palestine. Real-time air readings, which use handheld instruments to broadly screen for classes of contaminants like volatile organic compounds, showed the air quality near the site was within normal limits.

Still, people who live in East Palestine want to know about the chemical threats that may linger. Some residents have reported health problems, and about 3,500 fish have died in Ohio waterways since the wreck.

Officials are investigating the incident's cause as site cleanup and monitoring could take years, according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. A source familiar with the investigation tells CNN the NTSB will issue its initial findings on Thursday.

Approximately 15 cars remain at the derailment site, where they are on an NTSB hold, according to Connor Spielmaker, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern.

Ohio officials say the soil under the tracks is still contaminated and that the tracks will eventually be lifted to remove that soil. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is aware of the contaminated soil, and according to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, 4,588 cubic yards of soil and 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water have been removed thus far.

8:13 p.m. ET, February 22, 2023

Train dramatically slowed down showed signs of apparent wheel bearing overheat, according to CNN analysis

From CNN's Paul P. Murphy

Roughly 21 miles before it derailed, a Norfolk Southern train slowed down dramatically after showing the first signs of potential wheel bearing overheat, according to a CNN analysis of surveillance video and documents from the Department of Transportation.

The train had been traveling at an average speed of 49 mph between Alliance, Ohio and Salem, Ohio. It took 16 minutes for the train to travel 13 miles.

In Alliance, surveillance video did not show any signs of overheat. However, in Salem, surveillance video showed bright lights and sparks emanating from the train's wheelset — the signs of a potential wheel bearing overheat.

Between Salem and East Palestine, the train slowed dramatically, averaging a speed of just 29 mph until it derailed. It took 44 minutes for the train to travel about 21 miles.

Documents filed in 2020 with the Federal Railroad Authority give context to the abnormality of that slowdown. The "typical speed range" for a train traveling along this stretch of track is between 40 and 60 miles per hour.

The revelation that the train's average speed decreased by around 20 mph in the roughly 40 minutes before it derailed draws more questions about whether the train's crew was alerted to any potential issues — like a wheel-bearing overheat.

Norfolk Southern, like all railroad companies, utilizes hot box detectors to alert train crews and dispatchers of overheat issues. An online database of hot box detectors radio recordings, compiled and maintained by radio and rail enthusiasts, indicates Norfolk Southern has a hot box detector in Salem, just past where surveillance video captured the train's apparent wheel bearing overheat.

The company also has two other hot box detectors on the line, one in Colombiana, Ohio, and in East Palestine.

CNN was able to calculate the average speed of the train by utilizing surveillance video time stamps that showed the train's positions at specific points on the track.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it is investigating surveillance video that may show "what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment." Jennifer Gabris, a NTSB spokesperson, told CNN that "this information will be part of the preliminary report that will be released [Thursday] at 10 a.m."

8:21 p.m. ET, February 22, 2023

EPA administrator says he has “absolute confidence” in agency's air and water quality data

From CNN’s Celina Tebor

Michael Regan, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, speaks during a news conference in East Palestine, Ohio, on Tuesday.
Michael Regan, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, speaks during a news conference in East Palestine, Ohio, on Tuesday. (Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Michael Regan, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, said Tuesday the agency will support East Palestine as it enters a cleanup phase, and will continue to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for its actions.

“But let me also be crystal clear – Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess that they created and the trauma that they inflicted on this community and impacted Beaver County residents,” Regan said at a news conference.

Using EPA’s legal authorities, Regan said he ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up all contaminated soil and water and safely transport that contamination to the appropriate locations. 

That work will be done to EPA specifications, Regan added, and said Norfolk Southern will reimburse EPA for cleaning services. He said he is also ordering Norfolk Southern to attend and participate in public meetings and share information with the public.

If Norfolk Southern fails to complete any action ordered by the EPA, the agency will conduct the work itself and then force Norfolk Southern to pay triple in cost, Regan said.

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

Regan added he has “absolute confidence” in the agency’s air and water quality testing data.

“Our data is very solid,” Regan said. “And we believe that in our partnership with the state, that we have absolute confidence. And if the homes have been cleared and tested for drinking water, then we trust that data. We feel really good about that.”
8:54 p.m. ET, February 22, 2023

Officials try to reassure East Palestine residents that they're focused on cleanup from toxic derailment

From CNN’s Samantha Beech

Michael S. Regan speaks during an interview in East Palestine, Ohio, US, on February 16.
Michael S. Regan speaks during an interview in East Palestine, Ohio, US, on February 16. (CNN)

State and federal officials held a news conference last week in East Palestine, Ohio, as residents expressed frustration about the response to a train carrying potentially deadly materials that derailed in their hometown nearly three weeks ago.

Michael S. Regan, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, aimed to reassure residents that authorities are focused on keeping them safe.

Regan arrived in East Palestine on February 16 to assess the ongoing response.

“This incident has understandably shaken this community to its core," Regan said. "The community has questions and they deserve answers. I want the community to know that we hear you, we see you, and that we will get to the bottom of this."

The evacuation order issued after a days-long blaze was lifted on February 8 after air and water samples led officials to deem the area safe.

“EPA has assisted with the screening of more than 480 homes under the voluntary screening program offered to residents. And no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified. And we’re continuing to make those screenings available to any resident that wants to have their indoor air tested," Regan said.

The agency has full authority to use its enforcement capabilities over the crisis and it will stay there "as long as it takes" to ensure the community's safety, he added.