Norfolk Southern Creates $1 Million Community Fund to Be Managed by East Palestine Residents

Residents are still living in fear as cleanup continues, questions remain

Norfolk Southern has assured the EPA that it will cover all the costs related to the evacuation and cleanup of the airborne toxic event following the derailment of a train carrying dangerous chemicals in East Palestine.

Connor Spielmaker, a representative of Norfolk Southern, said the company has already spent more than $1 million making payments directly to families, businesses and city departments in East Palestine to cover the costs related to the evacuation.

Spielmaker also said that Norfolk Southern will soon announce another payment to a new fund called the “Community Giving Fund." He said the fund will be managed by a committee of East Palestine residents who will decide how the money should be spent.

“We’re going to ask that the city basically choose a couple people to sit on the committee that are local that knows where the money could help, versus a big corporation. We don’t know the community that well,” Spielmaker said.

"We are committed to East Palestine today and in the future," Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw said in a press release this week announcing the fund. "We will be judged by our actions. We are cleaning up the site in an environmentally responsible way, reimbursing residents affected by the derailment, and working with members of the community to identify what is needed to help East Palestine recover and thrive. This fund allows Norfolk Southern to move quickly to meet their immediate needs. We anticipate making further charitable contributions in East Palestine as conversations continue with local leaders and members of the community."

Media reports initially suggested Norfolk Southern has only paid the people of East Palestine $25,000 in damages for the explosion, amounting to $5 per person in the town of 5,000 residents.

But Spielmaker said that the $25,000 payment was a Red Cross donation intended to help them set up shop in the village during the immediate aftermath of the explosion. “That was never something we were putting out there as a, ‘Oh, look how we’re helping the community,’ that was literally just within hours of the derailment we knew the Red Cross was setting up so we wanted to give them something quickly to support that,” Spielmaker said.

At a Cincinnati city council meeting earlier this week, representatives from Norfolk Southern were on hand to discuss the planned purchase of the Cincinnati Souther Railway.

Naturally, questions centered not only on the company's finances but on the East Palestine disaster.

When asked during council’s meeting how the company would approach paying damages if a similar disaster were to happen in Cincinnati, Darrell Wilson, assistant vice president of government relations for Norfolk Southern, said:

“First of all, we can’t change what happened. But Norfolk Southern, Alan Shaw our CEO has spoken to Gov. DeWine probably 10 times in the last week, maybe more. We are onsite today with a hundred contractors. We have at least 30 [Norfolk Southern] people there on the ground working to still remove the rail cars. We had over 50 cars derail. You know, it’s an accident; accidents of this magnitude do not happen very often. Very infrequently. This one did involve 10 tank cars of HAZMAT, and we did have to do some really extraordinary things that have never happened in my 22 years with Norfolk Southern. We are committed to be with that community to get it right,” Wilson said.

As of Feb. 13, Norfolk Southern is reportedly worth around $55.26 billion. Wilson glossed over the question of legal claims in East Palestine, saying it will play out over time.

“For the process of damages and legal claims, that’s going to play out over a longer period of time, but we’re not going anywhere,” Wilson said.

Gov. DeWine yesterday called for stricter regulations of railways, noting that it was "absurd" that the train wasn't designated a “high hazardous material train.”

“We should know when we have trains carrying hazardous material that are going to the state of Ohio,” DeWine argued during a news conference.

Residents meanwhile have said they will do their own soil and water testing, even as the EPA does its own and officials claim that chemical runoff into waterways is dissipating to non-hazardous levels.

Of the 50 cars that crashed, Norfolk Southern said 20 were carrying vinyl chloride, which is used to make a hard plastic resin used in a variety of plastic products. The colorless vinyl chloride has been associated with an increased risk of liver cancer and other cancers, according to the federal government’s National Cancer Institute. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also released a complete list of the chemicals on board the derailed train, including ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, all of which the EPA said can have harmful effects if inhaled.

The EPA also said hazardous materials were found in samples taken from nearby waterways, including Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek and the Ohio River.

“I have seen the pictures of animals hurting from this, I have seen the destruction that has occurred there,” said Cincinnati resident Jack Cunningham during the public comment portion of the committee meeting. “There are a substantial amount of chemicals going into the atmosphere and local environment that are negatively affecting our watershed, going into the Ohio River and as such going into the Mississippi River and then the Gulf of Mexico.”

Fumes and smoke covered the town so severely that it warranted a week-long mandatory evacuation of thousands of residents, and East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway called a state of emergency.

Originally published by CityBeat, Scene's sister paper in Cincinnati.

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