(CNN) — Residents in a small Ohio town where a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed this month expressed frustration at a community meeting late Wednesday after the train’s operator didn’t show up — and continued to voice their mounting distrust in assurances of their safety.
Hundreds poured into a high school auditorium in East Palestine on Wednesday night, nearly two weeks after a Norfolk Southern train carrying potentially deadly materials derailed in their hometown and upended their lives.
The massive aftermath of the derailment — including a blaze that lasted for days — led to the evacuation of many residents. And although the evacuations orders ended February 8, a chemical odor lingered days afterward and officials estimate thousands of fish were killed by contamination washing down streams and rivers, fueling residents’ concerns about water and air safety.
Lenny Glavan, an East Palestine resident, told reporters Wednesday night at the meeting he still doesn’t have answers regarding the safety of his community and family.
“Is it OK to still be here? Are my kids safe? Are the people safe? Is the future of this community safe?” Glavan told reporters. “We all know the severity of that question, and what’s at stake. Some people think they are downplaying; some people don’t think so — let’s find out.”
Also spurring residents’ questions about safety were crews’ decision to conduct controlled detonations February 6 of some of the tanks that were carrying toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride that has the potential to kill at high levels and increase cancer risk.
The detonation essentially released those chemicals into the air, but officials say they didn’t have other viable options.
“There (were) two options: We either detonate those tanks, or they detonate themselves,” Mayor Trent Conaway told a group of reporters at Wednesday’s meeting.
“Yes, harmful chemicals went into the air. I am truly sorry, but that is the only option we had. If we didn’t do that, then they were going to blow up, and we were going to have shrapnel all across this town.”
Conaway, who leads a town of about 5,000 people bordering the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line, appeared to be frustrated while speaking with reporters as he expressed concern for the safety of his residents
“My greatest concern is that my citizens feel safe. That’s what I care about. I don’t care about anything else,” Conaway told reporters.
Michael Regan, who heads the US Environmental Protection Agency, plans to visit the East Palestine community Thursday to assess the ongoing federal and state response to the derailment.
Meanwhile, representatives of train’s operator, Norfolk Southern, planned on attending Wednesday night’s meeting to provide information to residents on how they’re responding to the chemical crisis. But the company backed out, citing threats against its employees.
“We have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties,” the company said in a release.
“We are not going anywhere,” the company noted, adding it’s “committed to East Palestine and will continue to respond to community concerns.”
The meeting came on a day when state officials again announced water coming from the municipal system was safe to drink. Test results from five wells that supply the system — covered by steel casing — showed no contaminants, the Ohio governor’s office said.
Still, the state’s Environmental Protection Agency encourages residents who get water from private wells to get that water tested, because those wells may be closer to the surface than the municipal wells, the governor’s office said.
When the evacuation order was lifted February 8, officials at the time said air and water sample results led them to deem the area safe.
Resident: Company’s absence was a ‘slap in the face’
Nate Velez, who said he lives less than half a mile from where the train derailed, told CNN on Wednesday night that the company’s absence from the meeting was “a slap in the face.”
“We are all excited for this town hall meeting, and it is just a slap in the face because the people who put us out are too afraid to show up to the meeting,” Velez told said.
Velez and his family are temporarily staying in rentals away from the town. He previously told CNN that when he visited the town Monday, a chemical odor left his eyes and throat burning, and gave him a nagging headache.
“Most people did not want to go home, but they had to. So, all the people who had to go home were complaining of smells, pains in their throat, headaches, sickness.
“I have gone back a few times, and the smell does make you sick. It hurts your head.”
Mayor to EPA: ‘I need help’
Ahead of the EPA visit to East Palestine, the town’s mayor expressed that he needs all the help he can get from the federal agency.
“I need help,” Conaway told reporters Wednesday night. “I have the village on my back, and I’ll do whatever it takes … to make this right. I’m not leaving, I’m not going anywhere. This is my town. I’m not going to sell my house. I’m not going to move my kids out of the school. I’m here to stay,” he said.
Regan, the federal EPA administrator, plans to meet with city, state and federal leaders involved in the response, hear from impacted residents as well as discuss the agency’s ongoing air, water and soil testing following the explosion.
A February 10 notice from the EPA deems Norfolk Southern responsible for cleaning up the site.
In a document sent to the EPA and recently made public by the agency, a company contracted by Norfolk Southern for cleanup efforts did not list soil removal among completed activities.
According to experts, removal of soil after it comes into contact with hazardous chemicals is a key step in the cleanup of spill sites.
CNN asked Norfolk Southern why it had not removed contaminated soil, and if it had filled in areas of contaminated soil and chemicals to reopen the rail line.
A company spokesperson said “some soil is moved around” during the initial response phase. The company is continuing to “remediate the site” including by removing soil, spokesperson Connor Spielmaker added.
The federal EPA and Ohio EPA have not responded to repeated questions from CNN about removal of contaminated soil.
Conaway said Wednesday night that he’s been in regular contact with Norfolk Southern, noting that the have been cooperating with him and local officials “tremendously.”
“But, they should — because they’re the ones that screwed this up,” Conaway said. “They screwed up our town, they’re going to fix it. If they don’t, I’ll be the first one calling you back to do this all over again.”
How the train company is responding
Norfolk Southern on Wednesday said it plans to create a $1 million charitable fund to support the East Palestine community.
“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,” Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw said in a statement.
The company described the fund as “one component of its planned support” to the community.
The company also expended $1,000 payment beyond residents who were within a mile of the spill evacuation zone and will now pay each resident in the entire 44413 ZIP code that money, a spokesman for the company told CNN.
As of Tuesday evening, Norfolk Southern has distributed more than $1.5 million in direct financial assistance to more than 1,000 families and a number of businesses to cover costs related to the evacuation, the company said Wednesday in a news release.
Those payments are in addition to the company’s offer to reimburse expenses related to residents evacuating during the incident, which includes the costs of hotels stays, food and more, said Speilmaker, the company spokesman.