Norfolk Southern Corporation, the railroad giant under fire following the fiery derailment of one of its freight trains in eastern Ohio, has backed out of a community town hall scheduled for Wednesday, citing a “growing physical threat” from “outside parties.”
The announcement came approximately two hours before the scheduled event, as residents of East Palestine, Ohio, and surrounding communities search for answers about the disaster’s impacts on human health and the environment. The Norfolk Southern train that derailed on Feb. 3 was carrying toxic and flammable materials, including hundreds of thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride, a common organic chemical used in the production of plastics that has been linked to several types of cancer.
The railroad operator said in a statement that it had hoped to participate in the town hall and share updated information, but decided against it in light of threats.
“We know that many are rightfully angry and frustrated right now,” the company said. “Unfortunately, after consulting with community leaders, 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 did not elaborate on the purported threats.
Initially, the town hall would have allowed the public to ask questions of officials and the railroad, but the event was subsequently changed to “an open house with informational tables for residents,” WKBN-TV reported. It is unclear if that change was made because of Norfolk Southern’s decision to back out.
While the event began with informational tables, the format eventually changed again, with East Palestine Mayor Trent R. Conaway speaking to attendees who sat in the bleachers, according to journalists who were at the event.
The Columbus Dispatch’s Max Filby, who was at the event, reported in a tweet that Conaway confirmed that Norfolk Southern was currently working with the town, but assured residents that he would speak up if that were to change.
According to The Washington Post, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) sent a letter to Norfolk Southern on Wednesday warning that his office might take legal action against the company.
“The pollution, which continues to contaminate the area around East Palestine, created a nuisance, damage to natural resources and caused environmental harm,” Yost wrote, the Post reported.
Since the derailment, two lawsuits have been filed against Norfolk Southern, one of which is calling on the railroad company to set up health monitoring for those living within 30 miles of the derailment in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
In its statement, Norfolk Southern said it remains “committed to East Palestine.”
“We want to continue our dialogue with the community and address their concerns, and our people will remain in East Palestine, respond to this situation, and meet with residents,” it said. “We are not going anywhere.”
Two days after the accident, authorities ordered an urgent evacuation for everyone within one mile of the crash site due to the potential for “a catastrophic tanker failure which could cause an explosion with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling up to a mile.” Officials eventually conducted what they described as a “controlled burn” of vinyl chloride in order to prevent a potential explosion.
In a letter to the CEO of Norfolk Southern on Tuesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) accused the company of mismanaging the incident and said that “prioritizing an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line injected unnecessary risk and created confusion.”