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EPA administrator says there are no concerns after derailment in East Palestine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking a hard line with the operator of the train that derailed in Ohio. EPA Administrator Michael Regan held a news conference this week where he said Norfolk Southern will pay for the cleanup. And if they don't, he said, EPA will do the job and charge the company triple the cost. Administrator Regan is here to talk about the road ahead for this community. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MICHAEL REGAN: Well, thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Before we get to the company's accountability, I want to talk about the safety of people living in the area. So far, EPA has said tests have not shown any contamination of air or drinking water linked to the derailment, but more tests are being done. How much more information do you need before you can conclusively say that this spill does not pose a risk to locals?

REGAN: EPA will continue to test the ambient air quality. For anyone who has concerns about their indoor air quality, we're asking them to reach out to us, and we will come into their homes and test that air quality. The state of Ohio is leading continuous water quality testing. We are providing support in that testing as well. We recognize that people are concerned about their air and water quality not just now, but for the medium and long term.

SHAPIRO: What does that mean - months, years? How long do you intend to keep testing?

REGAN: For as long as it takes. We are going to be with this community throughout this process. They will not have to manage this crisis alone.

SHAPIRO: Yesterday on the program, we heard from a local hunter in Pennsylvania named Adam Cornwell, who said he has heard about animals dying. Those are reports that we've not independently verified. But he told us this.

ADAM CORNWELL: I don't want to eat the deer if they're breathing in that contaminants, you know? So I pretty much can't hunt here no more.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that's an appropriate concern?

REGAN: You know, we have heard that concern as well. And the state of Ohio is leading that investigation. What the state of Ohio has told us is that they did see an initial impact to some wildlife during the beginning of the disaster but have not seen any lingering effects from it. And so, yes, there were fish floating in the river. But the state of Ohio is investigating that. And I encourage local hunters and everyone who is curious about it or concerned about it to reach out to the state of Ohio to get the latest information.

SHAPIRO: This might sound nitpicky, but there's an important distinction between, we've not seen evidence that this is harmful, and, we have demonstrated that this is safe. I know you said the first. Are you able to say the second?

REGAN: You know, I believe that we are, based on the science. Now, I recognize that no matter how much data we collect or provide, it may not be enough to restore that sense of safety and security. But what I can say is with the air quality analysis we've done - and we're using it using some of the most, you know, high-experience technology that we have for both air and water - the data is coming back demonstrating that there are no levels of concern for adverse health impacts.

SHAPIRO: As you said, people don't necessarily believe the federal government. Americans have lost their faith in institutions. Beyond telling people that you've tested the air and water and found no reason for concern, how can you get folks to have confidence in their infrastructure? How can you get folks to believe you?

REGAN: Number one, we have to continue to show up. And we have to be in these communities. And we have to be very transparent, bringing the data to them, but also making all of the data easily accessible. I believe that if we make all of our data transparent, those who are skeptical can use third parties to verify it. If we are in the community explaining the information, providing them the resources, we believe, over time, we will be able to rebuild that trust. But we know that that's a long journey.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about your promise that Norfolk Southern will pay for this. How specifically can EPA enforce that? How do you keep that promise?

REGAN: When bad actors pollute, as Norfolk Southern has done, when they inflict trauma, we have the authority under our CERCLA law to take the actions that we're taking. And so what we're going to do is we're going to hold the company accountable to provide to us a workplan that lays out every single step for how they will clean up the soil, how they will clean up the water and how they will continue to pay for testing. If they do not do this, we can step in, provide those services to the community, with no break in action, and we can fine this company up to $70,000 a day. By the way, after we complete those tasks, we can go back and go after this company for three times the amount that the government has to come out of pocket for.

SHAPIRO: You know, you referred to Norfolk Southern as a bad actor. You've said this is the mess that they created. Others have described it as an accident. Is it fair to call them a bad actor?

REGAN: Well, you know, what I would say is I won't get out in front of the investigation being led by the Department of Transportation and Pete Buttigieg, but what I will say is they've had a number of opportunities to demonstrate that they are going to be with this community. But at the first opportunity, during a town hall meeting, they decided to not show up. Listen. They have to...

SHAPIRO: They said that was because of safety risks and threats to the well-being of the people who were scheduled to be there. I don't know whether those risks were real, but if people felt that their lives were threatened, you could imagine why they might not show up.

REGAN: Well, you know, there were risks associated and threats associated with our organization as well and others that were in attendance. This was an important event to be at. There was adequate security in the location. And Norfolk Southern should have been there and could have been there, just like state, local, federal, community leaders, those who have been impacted. They made the wrong decision. They have to show up, and they have to make amends with this community. They caused this mess. They have to clean it up. And they have to prove to us and to the community that they're genuine in all of the declarations that they've made. Not showing up to public meetings isn't a great way to start.

SHAPIRO: You say that EPA and Norfolk Southern will be there until the job is done. That question of when the job is done is a subjective one. So what does the finish line look like to you?

REGAN: You know, the finish line looks like returning this community back to the state it was before the trauma was inflicted. The finish line is something that not only will EPA and state and local government determine, but the communities who will be involved in that. We will clean up this mess together, holding Norfolk Southern accountable to do the work and to pay for it. But this is a longer-term process. But rest assured, we will be there until the job is finished.

SHAPIRO: Michael Regan is the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Thank you for speaking with us.

REGAN: Thank you for having me, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAN OMARI SONG, "MOVE TOO FAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.