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The aftermath of the fiery train derailment in eastern Ohio in February 2023 does not qualify as a public health emergency according to federal officials, as widespread health problems and ongoing chemical exposures have not been substantiated. The derailment forced the evacuation of half the town of East Palestine and led to concerns about potential long-term health consequences of the spilled and burned chemicals, especially after five tank cars filled with vinyl chloride were blown open and burned three days after the incident. Emails obtained by a watchdog group revealed discussions about declaring a public health emergency, but the Environmental Protection Agency Response Coordinator, Mark Durno, stated that the agency has not found any environmental data supporting ongoing chemical exposures in the comprehensive testing program.

Although residents of East Palestine continue to report respiratory problems and rashes, the EPA maintains that they have not seen evidence warranting a public health emergency declaration. The agency issued an order holding Norfolk Southern responsible for the damage and stating that the conditions at the derailment site may endanger public health or welfare. Public concerns persist, with residents sharing experiences of new health issues, including seizures and cancers. The EPA is monitoring the situation and continues to oversee the cleanup efforts by the railroad, with tests showing no concerning levels of chemicals apart from the soil directly around the derailment site.

Federal and state officials are monitoring for additional issues in East Palestine, near the Pennsylvania border. However, President Joe Biden has not declared a disaster in the town despite the substantial cleanup costs incurred by Norfolk Southern, who has provided direct aid to affected residents. The EPA’s investigation into the cause of the derailment is ongoing but has indicated that an overheating wheel bearing likely caused the crash. The cleanup efforts are expected to be completed later this year, with a fund promised by the railroad to help with long-term health needs of the community.

The decision to release and burn vinyl chloride after the derailment was made by Ohio’s governor and the local fire chief, who deemed it safer than the risk of further tank explosions. Despite warnings from the EPA about potential hazards from burning vinyl chloride, only low levels of hydrogen chloride were detected in the plume of smoke and no phosgene. The National Transportation Safety Board found the vent and burn of the vinyl chloride unnecessary, citing that the company producing the chemical confirmed no dangerous chemical reaction was happening inside the tank cars. Efforts are ongoing to gather more information and ensure the safety of the community.

Many residents are becoming increasingly distraught as resources to aid in the recovery and long-term health needs of East Palestine remain uncertain. Promises of a fund from the railroad and the potential benefits of a public health emergency declaration have not materialized. Concerns about the future and lack of hope persist among residents, with a chiropractor and congressional candidate expressing frustration over the situation. Despite ongoing monitoring and cleanup efforts, the community continues to face uncertainty and challenges in fully recovering from the derailment.

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