Update: Help Coming to East Palestine, But Not from FEMA

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Tonight marks two weeks since a Norfolk Southern railroad train derailed and caught fire in the village.

Will East Palestine officially be declared a national disaster area?

Is it necessary with so many pledges to help now coming in?

“This is a disaster,” Gov. Mike DeWine said during a news conference Friday. “It is a disaster by any definition, but there’s a legal definition, so whether we file it and say there is a disaster or don’t – and I will leave that up to our lawyers – this certainly has been a disaster.”

In his discussions with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, DeWine said he has learned East Palestine’s particular disaster does not qualify for the declaration, which is usually reserved for large property damage to homes and businesses.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, has been among legislators calling for the declaration of disaster.

“FEMA’s assistance is absolutely necessary,” Brown said. “I believe the governor thinks that too. … I know the president of the United States talked to DeWine yesterday. I spoke to the president this morning directly, one-on-one about this, and he and I agree we will find a way to get FEMA engaged.”

Although Brown admits there was not huge amounts of property damage like from an earthquake, fire or tornado, he still believes there was a huge amount of damage to the community.

“I know what the rules are, but I also know FEMA is created to deal with public emergencies when it’s public health, when it’s damage to property, when generally low-income communities are hit so hard with financial costs – that to me is why FEMA exists.”

DeWine said his office will be filing paperwork to preserve the rights to call FEMA in if the agency is needed in the future or if Norfolk Southern for some reason stops paying to help residents.

“We believe that the railroad should continue to pay, and we’re going to insist that they pay,” DeWine said. “Whatever damages that were caused, the railroad is responsible for those damages.”

One form of help East Palestine will receive is through the Department of Health and Human Services, which DeWine said has agreed to send experts to set up a clinic for residents in the area, including anyone who has health concerns, evaluate symptoms and receive medical expertise from those who are experts regarding chemical exposures. Information about the location and hours of the clinic will be available HERE. Those setting up the clinic are expected to arrive Monday. DeWine also outlined opportunities for mental health assistance for residents, who have been through a difficult situation.

DeWine noted the train went through Ohio for a considerable amount of time, and he and other officials are calling for federal lawmakers to make some needed changes to protect those living near railroad tracks.

Brown was one of the legislators who came to East Palestine on Thursday to visit the site, firefighters and residents.

During a press conference Friday, Brown said both he and U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, had long discussions Thursday about what they can do in a bipartisan effort, as congressmen representing the area, to make railroads safer.

In East Palestine, contaminants in Sulfur Run and in the soil where the train derailment happened are going to take time to remediate, DeWine said.

For those who get their water from the Ohio River and are concerned about the contaminants found there, DeWine reported the levels of chemicals from the derailment have dissipated. Level of concern is 560 parts per billion, but readings Thursday in the plume were under three parts per billion. On Friday, there were no levels found.

Although levels of contaminants in the air and East Palestine municipal water continue to show no dangerous levels of contaminants, those with private well water are being told to call 330 849 3919 and continue to drink bottled water. DeWine said test results take time, and he had no results from private well tests to share yet.

DeWine said there have been people testing from the beginning of the situation, and while he understands some people are skeptical, he and other officials have no reason to lie about or downplay the situation.

“I understand people have been traumatized, and I understand skepticism,” DeWine said. “Sometimes skepticism is warranted – nothing wrong with healthy skepticism. All I can do as the governor of the state of Ohio is tell you we have the best experts that we can get and we have the best equipment that there is available to do the testing. We believe the testing is accurate. We continue to test. We continue to monitor, and these are not just people from the Ohio governor’s office. This is the Ohio EPA. This is the U.S. EPA, and we’re now bringing in other experts as well.”

In a press release Friday, Sen. Michael Rulli of Salem R-33rd, blasted National Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and called for his resignation over his department’s lack of action and concern for East Palestine.

While praising Second Harvest Food Bank of the Mahoning Valley for providing six trailers of bottled water Friday in an attempt to get as many as 30 cases of water to every affected family, Rulli continues to suggest anyone within the city, or within 3 or 4 miles of the city, should not be drinking the water despite assurances by DeWine and the Ohio EPA.

The White House released on Friday a number of actions the Biden-Harris administration has taken in response to the train derailment, including deploying the Federal EPA immediately to assist and having FEMA closely coordinating with those at the emergency operation center, the Ohio EMA and other federal partners. Additionally, they confirmed the announcement that the federal Department of Health and Human Services will be assisting along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the request of DeWine, stating a team will be there Saturday.

The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency, is currently investigating the derailment and is expected to release its preliminary findings about two weeks following the accident. 

Additionally, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration are involved in the NTSB’s investigation and looking for Norfolk Southern compliance with safety regulations.

Finally, the White House announced the Department of Transportation is managing more than $4 billion in a discretionary grant program designed to improve rail safety and eliminate at-grade rail crossings. The DOT reportedly is working on a proposed rule requiring a minimum of two-person train crews for safety, research to improve railcar design for hazardous materials and a proposal to provide real-time information about the contents of tank cars to emergency responders.

Pictured at top: Gov. Mike DeWine gives an update on the situation in East Palestine during a news conference Friday. (YouTube | The Ohio Channel)

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