Ohio train derailment: East Palestine mayor says he needs ‘help’ ahead of EPA administrator’s visit

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(EAST PALESTINE, Ohio) — The mayor of an Ohio village where a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed earlier this month told ABC News that he “wasn’t built for this” and needs “help.”

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway briefly spoke to reporters on Wednesday evening, before a town hall meeting with residents in the local high school’s gymnasium. ABC News asked Conaway about the pressure of being in the national spotlight and whether he has a message for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, who is slated to visit on Thursday.

“I need help,” the mayor responded. “I’m not ready for this. I wasn’t built for this. I always thought of myself as a leader. I will do whatever it takes.”

Earlier Wednesday, Regan announced via Twitter that he will travel to East Palestine, Ohio, the next day to hear from impacted residents, visit the derailment site and meet with the state’s emergency responders.

“I want the residents of East Palestine to know that we understand their fears and concerns,” Regan tweeted. “We are going to get through this together and we are holding Norfolk Southern accountable.”

About 50 cars of a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern Railway derailed in a fiery crash on the outskirts of East Palestine, Ohio, near the state line with Pennsylvania, on the night of Feb. 3. Ten of the derailed cars were transporting hazardous materials, five of which contained vinyl chloride, a highly volatile colorless gas produced for commercial uses. There were no injuries reported from the accident, officials said.

Efforts to contain a fire at the derailment site stalled the following night, as firefighters withdrew from the blaze due to concerns about air quality and explosions. About half of East Palestine’s roughly 4,700 residents were warned to leave before officials decided on Feb. 6 to conduct a controlled release and burn of the toxic vinyl chloride from the five tanker cars, which were in danger of exploding. A large ball of fire and a plume of black smoke filled with contaminants could be seen billowing high into the sky from the smoldering derailment site as the controlled burn took place that afternoon, prompting concerns from residents about the potential effects.

A mandatory evacuation order for homes and businesses within a 1-mile radius of the derailment site was lifted on Feb. 8, after air and water samples taken the day before were deemed safe, officials said.

The office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced Wednesday that the latest tests conducted by the state’s EPA show five wells feeding into East Palestine’s municipal water system are free from contaminants. But residents with private wells are encouraged to drink from bottled water instead, until their well water has been tested and cleared for consumption, according to the governor’s office.

“With these tests results, Ohio EPA is confident that the municipal water is safe to drink,” DeWine’s office said in a statement. “Because private water wells may be closer to the surface than the municipal water wells, the Ohio EPA recommends that those who receive drinking water from private water wells schedule an appointment for well water testing by an independent consultant.”

Ohio Department of Natural Resources director Mary Mertz said during a press conference Tuesday that four tributaries over a space of 7.5 miles along the Ohio River are contaminated, but officials are confident that those waterways are contained and not affecting water supplies. Nevertheless, the contaminated waterways have led to the deaths of some 3,500 fish. None of the 12 different species of dead fish that were detected are considered threatened or endangered, and there was no evidence that nonaquatic life has been impacted, according to Mertz.

Tiffani Kavalec, chief of the Ohio EPA’s surface water division, told reporters Tuesday that no vinyl chloride or pre-product has been detected in the water. The contamination mostly consists of fire contaminant combustion materials, according to Kavalec.

The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting a safety investigation to determine the probable cause of the derailment. Two videos show preliminary indications of mechanical issues on one of the car’s axles. The train’s emergency brake was activated after crews said an alarm went off, according to the NTSB.

Norfolk Southern Railway announced in a statement Tuesday that it has helped 1,000 families as well as a number of businesses in East Palestine, Ohio, since the Feb. 3 derailment. The Atlanta-based rail operator said it has also distributed $1.2 million to families to cover costs related to the evacuation.

Representatives from Norfolk Southern Railway did not attend Wednesday night’s town hall meeting due to concerns “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,” according to a company press release.

“We know that many are rightfully angry and frustrated right now,” Norfolk Southern Railway said in the press release. “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.”

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