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Some residents have filed a federal lawsuit after hazardous train derailment in Ohio

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's been just over a week since a train crashed in northeastern Ohio near the Pennsylvania border. Some of the cars that derailed contained hazardous materials, and residents were evacuated so authorities could release the chemicals through a controlled explosion. Now people are returning home, and many have concerns about the potential health risks of doing so.

Reporter Julie Grant with The Allegheny Front has been following the story and joins us now. Welcome.

JULIE GRANT: Hi. Thank you.

CHANG: Hi. OK. So let's start with the hazardous materials inside these derailed train cars. What do we know about those chemicals so far?

GRANT: Yeah. Well, when the crash occurred, we found out about two toxic chemicals - butyl acrylate and especially vinyl chloride. Exposure to vinyl chloride increases a risk of developing cancer. And those chemicals and the threat of a catastrophic explosion led authorities to order a mandatory evacuation for people who lived within a one-by-two-mile radius of the site on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

There's more information now about other contaminants that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detailed in a letter to the railroad company Norfolk Southern. Those include ethylhexyl acrylate, which can cause headaches, nausea, respiratory problems to people exposed to it, as well as isobutylene, which can make people dizzy and drowsy, and then another that can irritate a person's eyes, skin and respiratory tract.

CHANG: My goodness. OK. So I understand that you have been talking to people who are returning to their homes in the area. How are they doing?

GRANT: Yeah. Residents got the announcement late last Thursday that they could return home. And the people I spoke with in one family are back at work and school today. But they're stressed, and they're worried, especially after learning about the three new chemicals that were on the train. Some residents have reported soot on their homes and cars and worry that it's contaminated. So cleaning it is a concern.

More than 400 residents have requested indoor air monitoring in their homes. At last count, about half of those tested had been completed. The EPA says it found no indoor detection of chemicals of concern. It also continues to monitor air quality in the community and says it has not detected any problems that could be attributed to the derailment.

Lawsuits have also been filed against the company - against Norfolk Southern by business owners and citizens. They say the company was negligent, and one thing they want is the company to fund court-supervised medical screenings for serious illnesses that may be caused by exposure to those chemicals.

CHANG: Well, I imagine it's not just air quality that people are concerned about, right? Like, has there been any talk about danger to water supply there?

GRANT: Well, the U.S. EPA said it did find some of the chemicals in nearby creeks and streams. State regulators confirm that fish have been killed, but they said the area's drinking water is supplied by groundwater, so it would take longer for these chemicals to move underground if that were to happen. Norfolk Southern released a remediation plan which lists a number of ways it plans to continue to monitor and clean up the site, including installing wells to monitor the groundwater. That's at the site. It's also near the Ohio River, which is a major drinking water source. And at least one company that's supplied by the river says it's looking at an alternative water source in case that's needed.

CHANG: You mentioned that fish may be affected. What about possible impacts on other wildlife in the area?

GRANT: Well, there's some concern about endangered salamanders being affected, although experts aren't sure how they might respond to these chemicals. There have also been reports of cats and foxes getting sick or dying, although we have not been able to confirm all those reports.

CHANG: Julie Grant is a reporter with The Allegheny Front, a public radio program that covers environmental issues. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

GRANT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIPPIE SABOTAGE'S "OM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie Grant | Allegheny Front