President Joe Biden ordered federal agencies to continue holding Norfolk Southern accountable for its February derailment in eastern Ohio and appoint a FEMA official to oversee East Palestine's recovery, but he still stopped short of declaring a disaster.
Biden issued the executive order Wednesday evening. Part of the order essentially directed the environmental, health and transportation officials to continue doing what they are doing to make sure Norfolk Southern fulfills its responsibilities and report on the progress. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will name a recovery coordinator to monitor the situation.
The lack of a disaster declaration has been a key concern for many residents of the area where the derailment happened near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, but officials have said this situation doesn't easily fit the definition of a disaster because Norfolk Southern is paying to clean up the mess and help the town recover so unpaid bills aren't piling up. The railroad has committed $95 million to the town already as part of a response the railroad expects to cost at least $803 million.
Still, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine requested a disaster declaration back in July to make sure any unmet needs would be covered if Norfolk Southern did renege in its often-stated promise to make things right in East Palestine.
DeWine's spokesman, Dan Tierney, said the governor is glad the Biden administration “affirmed their long-term commitment to supporting the residents of East Palestine, including the consideration of federal disaster aid should Norfolk Southern not fulfill its obligation to fully compensate the residents of East Palestine and clean up the aftermath of the derailment.”
East Palestine resident Jessica Conard said the order is a step in the right direction, but she still has concerns.
“It’s a lofty title for an incremental change,” she said.
In particular, she questioned how the FEMA coordinator will effectively assess unmet needs of residents without chemical testing to their bodies or homes.
“I’m hopeful that we as residents can direct this narrative and that the emergency management services that are in place will support the residents through this process.”
The railroad has reimbursed residents for relocation costs since the derailment and compensated the fire department for equipment that was damaged while fighting the fire and dealing with the chemicals that were released after the derailment. Norfolk Southern has also promised to pay for upgrading East Palestine's parks and water treatment center. On Thursday, the Atlanta-based railroad announced plans to build a $20 million regional training center for first responders in East Palestine.
Norfolk Southern has also said it will establish funds to pay for lost home values, any long-term health concerns and water contamination issues that result from the derailment. The railroad announced a preliminary program to compensate homeowners earlier this week although the final details of those funds are still being negotiated with Ohio officials.
The railroad said it is committed to helping East Palestine now and in the future.
“From the beginning, Norfolk Southern has committed to making it right in East Palestine and covering all costs associated with the clean-up. In the months since, we have made significant progress, keeping our promises to safely and thoroughly clean the derailment site, support the needs of the community, and invest in its future,” Norfolk Southern said in a statement.
Jami Wallace, who helps lead the East Palestine Unity Council group that's trying to get residents' concerns addressed, said it would be better if the federal government would step in and compensate residents directly and then seek reimbursement from the railroad instead of forcing residents to deal with Norfolk Southern.
Also, she thinks more should be done to make sure the railroad does what it should.
“Commitment to holding Norfolk Southern accountable? People are still sick and living in homes that haven’t been tested. They are begging NS for assistance to survive,” Wallace said.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who co-sponsored a package of railroad safety reforms after the derailment that’s still awaiting a vote in the Senate, said it’s important to make sure that Norfolk Southern delivers on all its promises.
“This is an overdue but welcomed step to support the people of East Palestine,” said Brown. “There is still much more work to do to make this community whole and I will continue to push the administration to deliver for East Palestine and hold Norfolk Southern accountable.”
The White House said that if FEMA identifies needs that aren't being met or if Norfolk Southern changes the aid it is offering, it will reassess the disaster declaration.
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