Norfolk Southern will not attend Wednesday town hall on East Palestine train derailment
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (AP/KDKA) — The Ohio village upended by a freight train derailment and the intentional burning of some of the hazardous chemicals on board has invited affected residents to a town hall meeting Wednesday evening to discuss lingering questions.
Hours before the town hall meeting, rail operator Norfolk Southern said it will not be in attendance. In a statement at 4:38 p.m. on Wednesday, the company said it has become "increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties."
And there are still plenty of lingering questions about the huge plumes of smoke, the persisting odors, the reports of sick or dead animals, the potential impact on drinking water, all the cleaning up. Even as school has resumed and trains are rolling by again, things aren't the same.
In and around East Palestine, near the Pennsylvania state line, people are asking whether the air and water around them is safe for people, pets and livestock. They want assistance navigating the financial help the railroad offered hundreds of families who evacuated, and they want to know whether it will be held responsible for what happened.
Norfolk Southern announced Tuesday that it is also creating a $1 million charitable fund to help the community of some 4,700 people while continuing remediation work, including removing spilled contaminants from the ground and streams and monitoring air quality.
It also will expand how many residents can be reimbursed for their evacuation costs, covering the entire village and surrounding area.
"We will be judged by our actions," Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw said in a statement. "We are cleaning up the site in an environmentally responsible way, reimbursing residents affected by the derailment, and working with members of the community to identify what is needed to help East Palestine recover and thrive."
No one was injured when about 50 cars derailed in a fiery, mangled mess on the outskirts of East Palestine on Feb. 3. As fears grew about a potential explosion, officials seeking to avoid an uncontrolled blast had the area evacuated and opted to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars, sending flames and black smoke billowing into the sky again.
A mechanical issue with a rail car axle is suspected to be the cause of the derailment, and the National Transportation Safety Board said it has video appearing to show a wheel bearing overheating just beforehand. The NTSB said it expects its preliminary report in about two weeks.
Misinformation and exaggerations spread online, and state and federal officials have repeatedly offered assurances that air monitoring hasn't detected any remaining concerns. Even low levels of contaminants that aren't considered hazardous can create lingering odors or symptoms such as headaches, Ohio's health director said Tuesday.
Precautions also are being taken to ensure contaminants that reached the Ohio River don't make it into drinking water.
Norfolk Southern's full Wednesday statement can be found below:
"Today, we hoped to join local, state, and federal officials at a town hall to update the East Palestine community on the steps we are taking to thoroughly, responsibly, and safely clean up the accident site and to provide the latest results from ongoing water and air testing. We also wanted to be available to provide information on resources from our Family Assistance Center.
"At the same time, we know that many are rightfully angry and frustrated right now. Unfortunately, after consulting with community leaders, we have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties. With that in mind, Norfolk Southern will not be in attendance this evening. We want to continue our dialogue with the community and address their concerns, and our people will remain in East Palestine, respond to this situation, and meet with residents.
"We are not going anywhere. We are committed to East Palestine and will continue to respond to community concerns through our Family Assistance Center and our hotline for citizens to ask questions regarding return to home and health questions. We also plan to look for other opportunities to update residents on our actions over the coming days. We encourage all residents who have questions, concerns or need assistance to contact our Family Assistance Center at 800-230-7049."
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