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East Palestine evacuation lifted allowing residents to return home

This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio, are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar
This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio, are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. Residents were finally allowed to come home Wednesday after being evacuated Sunday night.

Residents of East Palestine were told they could return to their homes Wednesday night after being evacuated Sunday. A train derailment that occurred Friday night became a threat to safety when a drastic temperature change in one of the rail cars made a potential explosion with deadly shrapnel imminent. Officials avoided the explosion by performing a controlled release of the toxic chemical vinyl chloride on Monday.

"With the full support and backing of Gov. [Mike] DeWine, I am happy to announce the evacuation order is now lifted," East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick said at a press conference Wednesday evening.

Air readings in the community have been at normal concentrations, the U.S. EPA reported. The agency has been monitoring the air for vinyl chloride as well as other chemicals that were on the train. Residents who would like an air test done on their home before they return can call 330-849-3919.

There may be issues with air quality as remediation continues, James Justice with the EPA said.

"But you get rid of that gross contamination, you remove that physical product and then that largely eliminates your air issues, and then it's just localized for the workers on the site," Justice said.

The Ohio EPA Emergency Response Unit reported that water was affected.

"The unfortunate side of these incidents at the onset is that material does and in this case has entered the waterway," Kurt Kollar with Ohio EPA said. "Actions were taken to minimize that."

The material was immediately toxic to fish, but the drinking water is safe, Kollar said.

"We are working closely with our partners to ensure that that is maintained," he said.

All of the cars have been removed from the rails, Scott Deutsch with Norfolk Southern said. The company will be reimbursing residents for eligible expenses from the evacuations, such as clothing, food and lodging. Business owners can file claims for business losses with Norfolk Southern due to the evacuation.

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conway praised the fire department for their work.

"These men behind us saved our town on Friday. This could have been a disaster," Conway said. "If it wasn't for them and their leadership, we would have had a lot bigger problem on our hands."

Norfolk Southern will continue to prioritize safety after the accident, Deutsch said.

"This is a very unfortunate event," Deutsch said. "We run almost a thousand-some train across the country, and we will continue to operate safely."

However, Conway doesn't have an as optimistic outlook.

"We're going to have to find out what's going through our town," Conway said. "I don't have control of that."

Conway said he doesn't yet know how the railroad and the town can work together to keep citizens safe.

"Look I think we expect Norfolk Southern to have answers to exactly what happened and candidly to explain what they're going to do to prevent that from happening here or someplace else in the future," DeWine said. "The burden is upon them really to assure the public that what they do everyday is safe."

DeWine said the situation could have been a lot worse. Trains will begin to run again "soon," Deutsch said.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.