Pa. officials vow to ‘hold this railroad accountable,’ announce monthly water testing

Residents want to know ‘Is our water safe to drink? Is our air safe to breathe? Is our soil impacted? Are animals and wildlife affected?’ U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio said

By: and - February 16, 2023 4:07 pm

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan speaks at a news conference on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023. (Capital-Star photo by Kim Lyons)

(*This story was updated at 6:15 p.m. on Thursday 2/16/23.)

U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-17th District, visited the site of a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio on Thursday with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and vowed to “hold this railroad accountable for the harm they’ve caused.” 

Deluzio told the Capital-Star that his constituents in Beaver County, just a few miles from the site of the derailment, had a general sense of fear. 

“They want to know: ‘Is our water safe to drink? Is our air safe to breathe? Is our soil impacted? Are animals and wildlife affected?’” he asked. 

The 50-car derailment of a Norfolk Southern train near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border on Feb. 3 caused a fire and led to the evacuations of hundreds of residents in the surrounding area. On Feb. 8, the railroad conducted a controlled release of some of the toxic chemicals contained in five of the cars, including the carcinogen vinyl chloride.

On Thursday, Deluzio said he visited Sulphur Run, one of the streams near the derailment site that had been affected, and heard from state and federal officials about what was being done to protect the water there. He also said he had heard from some residents that representatives of the railroad were doing testing in their homes and asking for waivers to be signed. 

“That’s absolutely ridiculous, and we’ll be calling for the end of that,” Deluzio told the Capital-Star. “And frankly, those pieces of paper shouldn’t be worth anything. No one should have their rights taken away just so they can find out whether their home is safe for them to live in.”

Regan said at a press conference Thursday afternoon that the EPA’s air monitoring had not detected any levels of health concern in the community that were attributed to the train derailment. The drinking water is also safe, Regan said. But the Ohio Department of Health has advised nearby residents who rely on well water to use bottled water until testing could be conducted.

Regan said tests in nearly 500 homes near the derailment site had not found vinyl chloride and that screenings were still available for residents who wanted them.

“I would encourage every family in this community to reach out to the state or the EPA to get their home air quality tested and their water tested,” Regan said. “We have the resources to do it. And we want to do it. We want people to feel secure and safe in their homes. I want this community to know that they don’t have to manage this issue on their own.”

On Thursday afternoon, Gov. Josh Shapiro announced that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection will conduct independent water sampling to monitor water contamination risks related to the train derailment.

Additionally, DEP will assist public water supplies with concerns in evaluating their water source at the Beaver Falls Municipal Authority’s surface water intake on the Beaver River.

In a statement, Shapiro said tests will continue monthly to monitor any long-term impacts. DEP will take independent samples from Norfolk Southern sampling sites for examination by the DEP Bureau of Laboratories. The department also plans to take water samples in Pennsylvania within a 2-mile radius of the derailment site.

“As we work to learn more about the incident and hold Norfolk Southern accountable, the commonwealth will also lead the way so that Pennsylvanians are aware of and protected from any threats to their safety and resources that may arise,” he said. “Our independent testing will ensure the data we are receiving is accurate and timely so we can partner effectively with local communities to provide the information Pennsylvanians need and deserve.”

Previous evaluations from DEP’s Bureau of Environmental Cleanup and Brownfields indicate “that there is not likely to be any contamination of water wells in Pennsylvania,” the administration said.

Residents with concerns about private well water should contact the DEP Southwest Regional Office at 412-442-4000 for more information about well testing.

Earlier this week, Shapiro issued a letter to Norfolk Southern raising questions about the emergency response that was undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the derailment and vowing to hold the company accountable.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said in a statement released Wednesday night that legislative discussions about the incident have already started.

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly

Marley Parish

Marley Parish covered the Senate for the Capital-Star.