The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday ordered the operator of a train carrying hazardous chemicals that derailed in eastern Ohio to clean up any resulting contamination and pay all the costs.
The operator, Norfolk Southern, will not only be compelled to identify and clean contaminated soil and water, but also must reimburse the E.P.A. for the costs of cleaning private homes and businesses, according to the agency. If the E.P.A. deems that Norfolk Southern has failed to complete any of the tasks it has been ordered to do, the agency will conduct the cleanup itself and charge the company triple the cost, it said.
The announcement was made by the E.P.A. administrator, Michael S. Regan, at a news conference in East Palestine, the site of the derailment. He was accompanied by Mike DeWine, the Republican governor of Ohio, and Josh Shapiro, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania.
“This order represents one of E.P.A.’s strongest authorities to hold a company accountable for jeopardizing a community’s health and safety,” Mr. Regan said. “I know this order cannot undo the nightmare that families in this town have been living with. But it will begin to deliver a much needed justice for the pain that Norfolk Southern has caused.”
Mr. Regan said that federal, state and local authorities would work with Norfolk Southern to create a remediation plan, and would then require the company to follow the plan going forward.
The Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio
When a freight train derailed in Ohio on Feb. 3, it set off evacuation orders, a chemical scare and a federal investigation.
- A Heated Town Hall: Hundreds of Ohio residents gathered to demand answers about the fallout from the derailed train. Officials for the railroad company pulled out hours earlier, infuriating locals.
- Norfolk Southern: As the railroad company’s profits rose in recent years, so too did its accident rate. Experts say a focus on financial returns may be partly to blame for derailments such as the one in Ohio.
- Federal Response: The head of the Environmental Protection Agency traveled to East Palestine with promises of aid but faced skepticism from residents.
- Spurring Speculation: For many influencers across the political spectrum, claims about the environmental effects of the train derailment in Ohio have gone far beyond established facts.
In a statement, Norfolk Southern said that it had “been paying for the cleanup activities to date and will continue to do so,” and that it was “committed to thoroughly and safely cleaning the site.”
The E.P.A.’s order came 18 days after the derailment, which prompted a controlled burning of toxic chemicals that the authorities believed were at risk of causing an explosion. Thousands of residents were evacuated, and though most have returned, worries about the safety of the air and water have only deepened as the days have gone by.
The announcement began a new phase of the response, shifting from the initial emergency operation, which the state was leading with federal and local support, to the cleanup, led by the federal government. On a briefing call with reporters last week, White House officials suggested the Biden administration was considering such an order, which was made under the legal authority of a 1980 law — the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as CERCLA — which governs environmental cleanups following disasters.
Norfolk Southern will now also be required to send representatives to public meetings at the E.P.A.’s request. Only hours before a packed town hall meeting last week, the company announced it was not going to appear, citing concerns about an unspecified “growing physical threat” to employees.
Earlier on Tuesday, the U.S. transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, called on Norfolk Southern and the nation’s other freight rail companies to take immediate steps to improve safety in the wake of the derailment. He urged the companies to speed up the replacement of older rail tank cars with stronger models ahead of a 2029 deadline set by Congress, and to take part in a federal program through which railroad employees can report safety concerns. None of the nation’s major freight rail companies currently participate in the program, according to the Transportation Department.
Mr. Buttigieg also called on freight rail companies to provide notice to state emergency response officials when hazardous gas tank cars would be traveling through their states, a point that Mr. DeWine also raised in the news conference on Tuesday.
In a letter on Sunday to Norfolk Southern’s chief executive, Alan H. Shaw, Mr. Buttigieg warned that the federal government would hold the company responsible for any safety violations determined to have played a role in the derailment.
Asked at Tuesday’s news conference if he felt the government actions went far enough, and whether he wanted Norfolk Southern to face criminal charges, the mayor of East Palestine, Trent Conaway, paused to consider the question.
“They need to clean up the mess they made,” he said. “I want them to fix our town and put it back the way it was.”
Mark Walker contributed reporting.