This story comes from IdeaStream Public Media.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is calling on Congress to take action on rail safety in the aftermath of the East Palestine freight train derailment.
In a press conference Friday, DeWine said it’s up to Congress to pass stricter regulations for rail companies.
“To look at the question of what products are being carried on the rails, what the responsibility is of the railroad, what the responsibility is of the railroad to notify the state when that product is coming through,” DeWine said.
Railroads should have to notify communities of what’s being transported through them, DeWine said.
“In this particular case, there was no notification, and apparently, there was no legal requirement for a notification,” DeWine said.
DeWine said the state is asking its lawyers what they can do to amend regulations.
A Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine two weeks ago. Concerns over the possibility of a catastrophic failure of one of the tanker cars lead officials to conduct a controlled release and burn-off of vinyl chloride in five cars. Residents have raised concerns about lingering health effects, although state and federal officials have maintained the air and public water are safe.
DeWine reiterated this today, saying that air testing is continuing and that nothing of concern has been picked up. Residents who get their water supply from municipal wells can safely drink their water, he said. Sampling of private wells is ongoing. Appointments can be made by calling 330-849-3919.
There’s also no concern about the Ohio River, DeWine said.
“The levels at which this chemical was in the Ohio River have always been very low,” DeWine said. “We’re no longer getting readings at all.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio EPA will be in East Palestine as long as necessary, DeWine said.
“So we’re in here for the long run,” DeWine said. “We’re not leaving East Palestine.”
Despite officials saying the air and water are safe, DeWine said he understands residents have concerns.
“These are very legitimate questions. Residents deserve an answer,” DeWine said. “They have suffered a great deal. This has been a dramatic time for them.”
For this reason, DeWine has asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to come to East Palestine, and they have granted his request. The Ohio Department of Health will be establishing a clinic in town with the help of HHS for officials to answer residents’ questions and evaluate their symptoms believed to be from the derailment. HHS is expected to be in East Palestine early next week, DeWine said. Information on the location and hours of the clinic will be announced soon.
“We know that there are some people who do not have insurance. We also know that we have people who may not even have a primary doctor,” DeWine said. “We want to make sure that they have a place to go.”
This clinic is in response to residents’ health concerns, not concerns about air or water safety, DeWine reiterated.
“You know, I think we all know this, but it’s really worth saying it out loud that traumatic events like this cause stress and anxiety and worry most significantly for the people close to the traumatic event,” Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Director Lori Criss said. She recommended residents check in with themselves and their family, friends and neighbors and to reach out for help. Behavioral health providers in Columbiana County are available to help residents, Criss said. Community members can call 211 to connect with counseling or other services. Residents can also call the Ohio Care Line at 1 (800) 720-9616 for emotional support.
There have been calls for DeWine to call in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but DeWine said he’s been advised by FEMA that East Palestine does not qualify for their aid. However, he’s planning for a future in which FEMA might be needed by filing a document that preserves the state’s right to ask for the agency’s help. If they can activate FEMA, DeWine said they would release a notification of disaster.
“Look, this is a disaster. It’s a disaster by any definition, but there’s a legal definition,” DeWine said. “So whether we file it and say there’s a disaster or don’t, I’ll leave that up to our lawyers.”
Since the accident, several residents and business owners have filed class action lawsuits against Norfolk Southern. Attorney General Dave Yost will be looking into if the state should sue Norfolk Southern as well and will have more information next week, DeWine said.
“Thus far, when we’ve asked them to pay, they have paid,” DeWine said. “They are responsible for this crash. They are responsible for any damage that’s been done.”
DeWine called on the CEO of Norfolk Southern to go to East Palestine.
“He needs to go there. He needs to answer questions,” DeWine said. “I was upset that they pulled out of the town hall meeting the other night. They didn’t come. I think that’s a mistake.”
To residents’ concerns that government agencies are trying to downplay the derailment, DeWine said that’s not true.
“All I can do as 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,” DeWine said. “We believe the testing is accurate. It’s not just one test and then we go away. We continue to test. We continue to monitor.”