WASHINGTON, D. C. – President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he’s ordering the Federal Emergency Management Agency to designate a federal disaster recovery coordinator to oversee long-term recovery efforts in the East Palestine area.
“It is a continuing priority of my Administration to hold Norfolk Southern fully accountable under the law for this disaster and any of its long-term effects and to provide additional Federal assistance that the affected States, the people of East Palestine, and all those affected in surrounding communities may need,” said an executive order issued by Biden.
Biden’s executive order said he’ll hold off on granting Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s request for a federal “major presidential disaster declaration” related to February’s Norfolk Southern train derailment and release of hazardous chemicals in East Palestine.
The order said the disaster declaration request will be “held in abeyance to allow the State time to submit information on needs that may arise in the future and cannot be addressed by Norfolk Southern, State, and local governments and therefore require Federal assistance under the Stafford Act.
“If the Administrator of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) receives such information from the State, including with respect to a change in the nature of assistance provided by Norfolk Southern, the Administrator shall immediately assess and submit a recommendation on whether a major disaster declaration is warranted,” the executive order continued.
In a letter to Biden, DeWine said he requested the declaration because the voluntary support provided by Norfolk Southern could cease in the future, and the declaration would “ensure that the State and Federal government use all resources available to step in and provide the community with needed assistance.”
DeWine’s request for the declaration noted that since the derailment, the Ohio Emergency Management Agency has maintained frequent contact with FEMA on numerous fronts, including the potential provision of aid through FEMA. FEMA told the state it is not likely to grant assistance because no unmet needs have been reported to the state.
The voluntary actions of Norfolk Southern have to date reimbursed citizens and state and local governments for costs associated with damage incurred due to the train derailment, but concerns remain that the state will need FEMA help if Norfolk Southern stops voluntary aid, or future needs arise, said a news release from DeWine.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Cleveland Democrat, called the executive order “an overdue but welcomed step to support the people of East Palestine.
“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,” said a statement from Brown.
U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, a Marietta Republican whose district includes East Palestine, released a statement that criticized Biden’s executive order as insubstantial. He said he believes it was issued because Johnson is conducting a Friday field hearing in East Palestine where Norfolk Southern’s CEO, East Palestine’s mayor and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s director have been invited to discuss cleanup progress.
“The White House had to be on the record doing ‘something’ prior to the hearing,” said Johnson “And, while something is better than nothing, in this case, it’s not by a long shot.
Biden’s executive order said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deployed a team to East Palestine within hours of the Norfolk Southern derailment to support state and local emergency response efforts, and is directing and supervising the cleanup “to protect the health, safety, and future of the East Palestine community and other affected communities.”
It said more than 115,000 tons of contaminated soil and more than 33 million gallons of contaminated liquid have been shipped offsite for disposal. It said EPA has collected more than 18,000 air samples and more than 3,000 soil samples.
EPA’s state and local partners have collected more than 425 monitoring-well samples and more than 3,200 surface water samples, and have conducted 31 rounds of drinking water sampling, the executive order said.
“Available data show that no contaminants of concern have been detected at levels of concern in the air in the affected communities at sustained levels since the evacuation order was lifted,” it continued. “Almost no contaminants of concern have been detected at levels of concern in water in surface streams since early May of 2023. Treated municipal drinking water shows no detection of contaminants associated with the derailment. To date, sampling indicates that residential groundwater wells have not been affected by chemicals associated with the derailment.”
The executive order also noted that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has been coordinating with and supporting the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate the derailment. It said the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is also assessing Norfolk Southern’s compliance with rail safety regulations and scrutinizing Norfolk Southern’s overall safety culture.
Sabrina Eaton writes about the federal government and politics in Washington, D.C., for cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer.