The head of Norfolk Southern, the company who operated the train carrying hazardous materials that derailed earlier this month, met with residents and local leaders of the East Palestine, Ohio, community on Saturday, a company spokesperson said.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw was also meeting with company crews working at the site of the derailment, spokesperson Connor Spielmaker said.
Shaw’s visit – the second one to the village since the derailment – follows a promise he made to the community this week to be “here to help make things right.”
“My simple answer is that we are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive,” Shaw said in an open letter to the community posted online Thursday. “Our work is underway. Crews are cleaning the site thoroughly, responsibly, and safely.”
“I know there are still a lot of questions without answers. I know you’re tired. I know you’re worried. We will not let you down,” Shaw added.
Just hours before that letter was published, hundreds of frustrated East Palestine residents packed a local high school gym for a town hall, expressing their concerns about water and air safety following the toxic wreck and their mounting distrust with answers they’ve been receiving from their leaders. Norfolk Southern had planned to attend and offer updates on cleanup efforts and results from latest air and water tests but backed out earlier in the day, citing safety concerns.
The February 3 derailment prompted crews to conduct controlled detonations of some of the tanks that were carrying toxic chemicals including vinyl chloride, which has the potential to kill at high levels and increase cancer risk.
A local evacuation order went into effect and was lifted five days after the derailment, after officials deemed the air and water safe for people to return. But many residents are not convinced: some have complained of a lingering chemical stench and adverse reactions like headaches and pains.
“Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or in the water,” one resident yelled out during Wednesday night’s town hall.
“I have concerns with dead fish, the smell of the water,” another said. Thousands of fish were killed by the contamination washing down steams and rivers after the wreck, but state officials say the contaminants have since been contained.
No vinyl chloride has been detected in any down-gradient waterways near the train derailment, Tiffani Kavalec, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s division chief of surface water, told CNN earlier this week.
And state officials have repeatedly determined water from the municipal system – which is pulled from five deep wells covered by solid steel casing – is safe to drink. But the state’s EPA has encouraged residents who use private wells to get that water tested, as those wells may be closer to the surface than municipal wells.
Federal government deploys medical experts
On Thursday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine asked the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Health and Human Services to send medical teams to East Palestine, including “physicians and behavioral health specialists.”
In response, the Biden administration said it has deployed federal medical experts to help assess what dangers remain and the CDC also confirmed Friday it will send a team to assess public health needs in the area.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre suggested on Thursday that the needs in East Palestine are “much more expansive” than the aid already being provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We understand the residents are concerned, as they should be, and they have questions – that’s all understandable. And you know, we’re going to get to the bottom of this. We’re going to try and figure out an answer to what occurred,” she said. “So we’re going to get through this together. We’re going to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.”
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board is “working vigorously” to figure out what caused the derailment, Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said on Twitter on Thursday.
“You have my personal commitment that the NTSB will CONTINUE to share all information publicly as soon as possible following our analysis,” Homendy wrote. “Next: NTSB investigators will thoroughly examine the tank cars once decontaminated. As always, we’ll issue urgent safety recommendations as needed.”
Investigators are reviewing multiple videos of the train prior to its derailment, including one that shows “what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment,” the agency has said.
CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian, Aya Elamroussi and Samantha Beech contributed to this report.