An Ohio Senate committee held its first hearing on the toxic train derailment in East Palestine. The Senate’s Special Committee on Rail Safety had a lot of questions for leaders of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) and the Ohio Emergency Management Agency (OEMA).
On February 3rd, 50 train carriages, 10 of which were carrying hazardous materials, derailed as a result of a technical problem with a rail car axle, according to federal authorities. There was vinyl chloride in five of the vehicles. Hundreds of residents evacuated as a result of the controlled release of poisonous gasses that Norfolk Southern carried out on February 6th to stop an explosion.
Officials told East Palestine residents on February 8th that they could safely go home, despite the reports of hundreds of dead fish in the Ohio river near East Palestine and residents complaining of headaches and illness since the derailment.
Now, people are back home and worried about long-term health consequences, even as officials say the air and municipal water are safe.
OEPA Director Anne Vogel informed the committee that the cleanup is going well. She said that soil and liquid had been transported to authorized facilities off-site. She also stated that the remediation of contaminated waterways is ongoing.
Vogel, however, said that the polluted dirt along the train tracks where the disaster occurred had still not been cleared.
“Rails have not been torn up yet. We have a work plan from Norfolk Southern that we are reviewing right as we speak. And that will determine how the rail work gets done,” Vogel said.
According to Vogel, the OEPA will stay put and do ongoing tests on the air, soil, and water. And she said that it would stay put in the long run to keep an eye on cleanliness and public health.
Sima Merik, director of OEMA, stated that her group supports the neighborhood in three key ways. She listed the first as ensuring that all resources are available to meet fundamental requirements. Additionally, she stated that the Ohio State Highway Patrol is supporting VIP control, communication, and security. Merik added that the organization is coordinating with neighborhood first responders to make sure they have what they require.
State Senator Michael Rulli (R-Salem), the committee’s vice-chair and senator for the East Palestine-based Senate district, praised OEPA for being there on the ground ever since the derailment on February 3rd. And he added that he was happy to learn that OEPA would keep an extended eye on the situation.
“This problem is so deep and is going to go for a while and the most exciting thing I’ve heard you say today is that you are in for the long haul and for that I thank you,” Rulli said.
According to Rulli, there has been a breakdown in communication between federal and state agencies on the ground. He claimed that the district’s concern is currently “at a fevered pitch” and that it is crucial to improve communication, particularly with the population. He emphasized that individuals should view this process as a marathon and not a sprint. Rulli stated that he doesn’t want this matter to become bogged down in politics but rather wants to find out what’s going on and make improvements to make trains safer.
“We need the feds to work with us. This is bipartisan. You know train derailments could care less what political party you are in because it is going through all of our neighborhoods,” Rulli said.
The Ohio Legislature is working on other measures to make Ohio’s railroads safer in the meantime. The state transportation budget now includes ideas for maintaining two-person crews and other train-related items. The Ohio House of Representatives passed the budget in its entirety on Wednesday. Next, the budget moves on to the Senate for consideration.
U.S. Senators JD Vance (R-OH) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) also introduced a plan to help improve train safety on Wednesday. Among other things, it would compel railroads to alert states when trains carrying hazardous materials are passing through, to have a written gas discharge plan if trains are transporting hazardous materials, and to lessen or completely stop blocked crossings brought on by delays in train operations.
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Hannah Poling is a lead reporter at The Ohio Star and The Star News Network. Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahPoling1. Email tips to [email protected]