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Federal agencies detail East Palestine response efforts ahead of anniversary, Presidential visit

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Federal agencies detail East Palestine response efforts ahead of anniversary, Presidential visit

Jan 31, 2024 | 5:04 pm ET
By Nick Evans
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Federal agencies detail East Palestine response efforts ahead of anniversary, Presidential visit
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Aerial view of the train derailment wreckage in East Palestine. (Screenshot from NTSB B-roll recorded Feb. 5, 2023)

Sometime in the coming month, President Biden plans to visit East Palestine to meet with residents and gauge his administration’s response to the train derailment that occurred there one year ago. The administration has yet to announce the exact timing for the president’s visit.

The derailment created nightmarish scenes of a billowing black tower of smoke after first responders burned off vinyl chloride spilled at the site. Residents were forced to evacuate and complained about respiratory effects and nosebleeds in the immediate aftermath. Some still question whether the area is safe.

In a call with reporters, administration officials cataloged their efforts to clean up the site and restore residents’ confidence.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan promised to stand “shoulder to shoulder with the East Palestine community until we are certain that every bit of hazardous contamination has gone.”

The agency is still directing cleanup, but he argued they’ve done a lot already. More than 176,000 tons of contaminated soil removed, 43 million gallons of wastewater shipped away and more than 45,000 samples tested, Regan described.

“Because of this oversight, and our comprehensive and ongoing science-based monitoring,” he said. “We’re confident that the residents of these Palestinians are not at risk from impacted surface water, soil or air from the derailment.”

Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg touted steps to protect rail workers and first responders, including paid sick leave and easier access to information about the hazardous materials a train is carrying. He added that within the last week, Norfolk Southern agreed to a pilot program allowing 1,000 of its employees to participate in a “close call” reporting system. The program allows workers to confidentially report unsafe activity so regulators can spot danger before it happens.

But he argued Congress needs to do its part, and he highlighted the bipartisan Railway Safety Act.

“It should not be the case that one year after that derailment, we are still waiting for Congress to act,” Buttigieg insisted.

He argued the legislation, spearheaded by U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, and J.D. Vance, R-OH, would give the DOT the ability to assess bigger fines, require better safety detectors, and expand the list hazardous materials.

Anne Bink, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s office of response and recovery explained at the height of her team’s effort, 70 staffers were on the scene to assist residents. She explained the agency has dispatched a disaster recovery coordinator to identify unmet needs and “help with the transition from incident recovery and cleanup to long term recovery in East Palestine.”

But while President Biden ordered FEMA to assign a coordinator, his administration has so far declined to issue a disaster declaration — a point of contention among some in East Palestine.

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.