Congressional delegation and EPA visit East Palestine to hear from residents impacted by derailment
Photo of the East Palestine train derailment from the U.S. EPA.
In East Palestine Thursday, an Ohio congressman, both U.S. Senators and the EPA administrator heard from residents impacted by the train derailment earlier this month. Officials insisted they would do everything in their power to hold the train company Norfolk Southern accountable.
U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance voiced skepticism on multiple fronts during his visit. He panned Biden administration agencies and expressed doubts about repeated air tests showing no contamination.
“Look, people say that the air is clean,” Vance said. “I would like to believe that that’s true. I also have been here for all of three hours, and it doesn’t smell great to me.”
In a different interview Wednesday, Erik Olson, a toxics expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council voiced similar misgivings. “Not that they were done in bad faith,” he said, “just they’re limited.” He explained testing results thus far for air, surface water, and ground water had covered a relatively narrow list of chemicals.
But Vance saved his harshest criticism for Norfolk Southern. He insisted the company needs to do more to clean up the site, and zeroed in on how rapidly they laid replacement rails.
“You cannot dig out and clean up an area if it’s covered by railroad tracks and there are trains going over it,” Vance argued. “The fact that they replaced the rails, I think, suggests they’re much more focused on reopening the railway than on cleaning up this community.”
Vance also raised concerns about what the company is asking residents to sign in exchange for support. One woman showed him documents she had to sign that indemnify Norfolk Southern from future legal liability.
“I looked at it, and I was in utter disbelief,” Vance said. “We contacted Norfolk Southern right away, and the answer that they gave us — not joking — was that was an accidental indemnification agreement. We didn’t mean to give her that when we gave her the wrong one.
“Okay—come on,” he said, exasperated.
After residents raised concerns about Norfolk Southern offering reimbursements only to those within a one-mile radius of the spill, Vance asked the company to expand the program to all the village’s residents.
What makes an emergency?
To the average person, there’s little question that the train derailment, subsequent chemical spill, and fire are an emergency. But to this point, the state has not made an official disaster declaration.
Today, all Democratic members of the Ohio House and Senate sent a letter to the governor urging him to declare an emergency in East Palestine. pic.twitter.com/AFdBIZWGQ5
— Ohio House Dems (@OHHouseDems) February 16, 2023
Every single Democrat in the state legislature signed a letter urging Gov. Mike DeWine to do so. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, has sent DeWine a letter as well.
“A man-made disaster of this scale, scope, and significance necessitates a response and deployment of resources that are commensurate in scale and scope,” Brown said in a letter to DeWine.
He expressed gratitude to those agencies working on the ground already but argued they need more help. An disaster declaration would clear the way for additional resources, including broad support from FEMA.
But Vance expressed concerns that a such a declaration might inadvertently “let Norfolk Southern off the hook.”
“There’s some tension between declaring a federal disaster and having FEMA come in, and then shifting the liability of this accident to the federal government, as opposed to the train company that actually caused the problem,” Vance explained. “We have to be careful about that.”
A senator, a congressman, and the EPA administrator
U.S. Sen. Brown and U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, joined U.S. EPA chief Michael Regan Thursday to visit East Palestine residents. Afterward, Regan attempted to walk the familiar, fine line between assuring residents of safety without dismissing their concerns.
He defended their testing program, arguing EPA hasn’t detected “any levels of health concern” tied to the derailment since the fire went out.
“EPA has assisted with the screening of more than 480 homes under the voluntary screening program offered to residents,” Regan said, “and no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride were identified.”
He added the program would continue, and insisted that so far they have seen no impact to drinking water.
Brown emphasized the importance of holding Norfolk Southern accountable — for testing for clean-up and for the expenses nearby residents incurred during the evacuation.
“You can’t stay in a hotel for a week without spending a lot of out-of-pocket money,” he argued, “and that’s just something that Norfolk Southern needs to cover.”
Johnson spoke about potential action in Congress. Earlier this week DeWine called it “absurd” that the train didn’t have a high hazard designation. Johnson said his office began working on the idea immediately, and Brown committed to helping in the effort. Separately, Vance said he will share plans in the coming weeks.
While Johnson acknowledged specific legislation remains a work in progress, he said “bottom line is that we’re on it.”
“There are a lot of questions about how this could have potentially been prevented, and what we can do to make sure that that nothing like this ever happens to another community,” Johnson said.
“Either here in Ohio, or across the river in Pennsylvania — anywhere,” he said. “This kind of thing should not happen.”
Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.
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