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Norfolk Southern agrees to pay for East Palestine residents to relocate during cleanup

  • Oliver Morrison/WESA
Heavy equipment moves dirt near the site of the derailment on Saturday,March 4, 2023.

 Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

Heavy equipment moves dirt near the site of the derailment on Saturday,March 4, 2023.

Thousands of residents in East Palestine, Ohio, and nearby residents in Pennsylvania will be able to live elsewhere at no additional cost while crews clean up after last month’s derailment of a Norfolk Southern train that had been hauling vinyl chloride, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday.

“As soil work continues at Norfolk Southern’s derailment site, some residents close to the derailment site may notice additional odors,” the EPA said in a news release. “At EPA’s request, Norfolk Southern has agreed to provide additional financial assistance to residents of the East Palestine area, including the portions of Pennsylvania within a mile of the derailment site. This assistance may include temporary lodging, travel, food, clothing, and other necessities.”

The release says that residents who want to move during the cleanup should contact the Norfolk Southern resource hotline at  800-230-7049, or visit the Family Assistance Center at Abundant Life Church in New Waterford, Ohio.

Oda Sponsel, 58, who lives 1.5 miles from the derailment site in East Palestine, said she visited the assistance center today and that Norfolk Southern offered her a prepaid debit card worth $500 per week. But Sponsel said she objected, saying that her housing alone would cost about $2,200 per month because she needs to take her two dogs with her and hotels charge more for dogs.

After about three hours, she said, a manager at Norfolk Southern agreed to pay for the housing option she found but told her that she would have to return to show them the specific housing option once she secured it to get approval. And because Sponsel didn’t take the prepaid debit card, she said, the manager told her she will be responsible for paying for all of the costs up front and submitting receipts for reimbursement. Sponsel said she asked for a copy of the agreement and was told that she couldn’t have a copy but that it would be in her file.

The Norfolk Southern representative told Sponsel the remediation would likely take about six weeks. Sponsel is looking for housing near the Wexford Giant Eagle, where she manages the deli. She’s been working for the company for 30 years and said she’s poured savings into her home.

“I’m feeling better than I was before I went over there. I’m feeling a little bit hopeful just being able to get away from from here for health reasons. I’m concerned about my dogs,” she said. “But then I’m also feeling sad…that I have to leave my house.”

River Valley Organizing, an advocacy group, shared an email from the EPA that offered additional details: It said Norfolk Southern began soil removal under its tracks on Saturday and is beginning to contact residents today about the remediation effort by mailing out notices about the option to relocate. On Saturday, resident James Gorby posted on an East Palestine Facebook group, “The smell is back Anybody else smelling it because of the rain.”

Jami Cozza, an organizer with River Valley, said she’s spent the day at the assistance center and some residents are upset at the timing of the move. “They started digging up that soil on Saturday, and they’re just now doing this today?” she said.

Cozza said some residents have complained that their neighbors have been offered relocation assistance but their own requests were denied despite living only one house away. Others live near water that has been shown to be contaminated, but their homes are outside the 1-mile evacuation radius, she said.

This latest move from Norfolk Southern is likely to further divide the community, she said. Business leaders have already been upset by all the negative attention, as they try to lure residents back to support local businesses rather than encourage them to leave, she said.

“The business owners are of the mindset: The derailment happened. Let’s move on,” she said.

The government’s disaster-response office, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is also hand-delivering notice of the relocation options today, according to the EPA.

Relocation is voluntary, and Norfolk Southern will continue to pay expenses “while the soil removal and transportation work is ongoing.” The EPA email says residents will not have to sign a waiver or release of liability to receive that support. Residents can make payment arrangements with Norfolk Southern, according to the email, and one option will be a prepaid debit card.

The EPA email says that remediation work is expected to last one to two months, depending on the weather and unexpected delays. It also includes information about how residents can request to have the inside and outside of their homes cleaned by a Norfolk Southern contractor.

Oliver Morrison / 90.5 WESA

Cleanup work continued near the derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio on March 4, 2023.

In an emailed response to the news, Norfolk Southern said that residents “may notice additional odors” as their remediation work continues. “We have deployed additional air monitors, which now number 11, to the perimeter of the work area to ensure continued monitoring of air quality between the work area and community,” according to its statement.

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