The removal of contaminated soil from the eastern Ohio site of February's fiery Norfolk Southern derailment is expected to be completed sometime this weekend, although the larger cleanup effort isn't over.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials and the railroad announced the milestone Thursday in East Palestine. It comes nearly nine months after the derailment forced thousands from their homes near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Area residents still have lingering fears about potential health effects from the assortment of toxic chemicals that spilled, and the vinyl chloride that was released a few days after the crash to keep five tank cars from exploding.
The derailment has inspired nationwide worries about railroad safety and prompted members of Congress and regulators to propose reforms, however that bill has largely stalled.
Since the Feb. 3 derailment, the railroad has removed more than 167,000 tons of contaminated soil and more than 39 million gallons of tainted water from the site where hazardous materials spilled and were released from tank cars.
The end of the soil removal will significantly cut down on heavy truck traffic in East Palestine. Officials were also able to reopen Taggart Street to the public near the derailment site this week.
Officials with both the state and federal Environmental Protection Agencies will still oversee the remaining cleanup work, which includes backfilling in excavated areas and assessing chemical contamination in the area's creeks. Residents post pictures regularly of a chemical sheen on water in the streams anytime the creekbed is disturbed.
Regional EPA administrator Debra Shore promised that her agency will make sure all the contamination is gone before signing off on the cleanup.
The railroad's CEO Alan Shaw also promised to see the cleanup through.
"Norfolk Southern is committed to remaining in East Palestine for the long haul," Shaw said.
Regular testing of the air and water will still take place too. Officials have said those tests consistently showed it's safe although many residents remain uneasy.
Norfolk Southern said earlier this week that the costs associated with the derailment have grown to nearly $1 billion, a figure that will keep climbing as more legal settlements and fines are agreed to and the cleanup carries on. That total includes more than $96 million the railroad has pledged to residents and the community to help them recover.