JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency got a first-hand look Thursday at a creek contaminated by a freight train derailment in Ohio that spilled toxic chemicals and burned in a huge plume over homes and businesses.
The visit by EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who stood along a waterway still reeking of chemicals nearly two weeks after the derailment, came a day after residents of the Ohio village of East Palestine packed a meeting and demanded to know if they were safe.
Regan said he was confident that technology being used to clean up the mess would protect public health. But residents are frustrated by what they say is incomplete and vague information about the lasting effects from the disaster.
No one was injured when about 50 cars derailed in a fiery, mangled mess on the outskirts of East Palestine on Feb. 3. As fears grew about a potential explosion, officials seeking to avoid an uncontrolled blast had the area evacuated and opted to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars, sending flames and black smoke billowing into the sky again.
In the nearly two weeks since the derailment forced evacuations, residents have complained about suffering from headaches and irritated eyes and finding their cars and lawns covered in soot. The hazardous chemicals that spilled from the train killed thousands of fish, and residents have talked about finding dying or sick pets and wildlife.
That accident is prompting questions in Jacksonville where trains with tanker cars constantly cross the St. Johns River. And there have been problems in the past.
So News4JAX asked: who is actually regulating what chemicals pass through Jacksonville?
The short answer is, no one is saying, or at least not telling News4JAX, for now.
In 2014, on the tracks under the Acosta Bridge, a Norfolk Southern train tanker car derailed, the same company that is involved in the Ohio incident. It was holding 28,000 gallons of ethanol, a highly flammable liquid. In that incident, News4JAX was told only a few gallons seeped out. Still, employees working in the area were evacuated for safety reasons, but no one was injured.
What News4JAX learned that day holds true now. Thousands and thousands of gallons of chemicals pass through Jacksonville every day by rail and also on roadways.
Robert Parrott has lived next to train tracks near the rail yard on the Westside for over 22 years. During that time he has always wondered what is passing by his house.
Sometimes he worries about an accident like what happened in Ohio.
“It could explode. I am always thinking of that,” Parrott said.
More than a year ago, not far from where Parrott lives a fire at the railyards on Edgewood Avenue damaged a cargo container and crane smoke could be seen for miles, but no one was hurt.
In 2019, tanker cars carrying ethanol overturned along CSX tracks on the Northside and fell into the Cedar River, but no one was injured and CSX said no leaks or spills were detected.
News4JAX checked with railroad officials locally and nationally about what agency regulates what comes through the area, but no answers yet. New4JAX also checked with Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, which would be the responding agency. It said it is prepared but really has no idea what’s passing though at any given time. The same goes for the Port Authority.
In past reporting, News4JAX has been told most hazardous chemicals go around the city, but on Thursday no one was able to confirm if that is still the case.