In Town of Toxic Derailment, Sen. Vance Has Questions for Railroad, Feds

In Town of Toxic Derailment, Sen. Vance Has Questions for Railroad, Feds
JD Vance (R-Ohio), who was then senator-elect, arrives at a meeting with Senate Republicans at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Nov. 16, 2022. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Nathan Worcester

Speaking from East Palestine, Ohio, site of the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway train and subsequent deliberate burn of freight cars containing toxic chemicals, Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) questioned Norfolk Southern’s actions and the responsiveness of federal authorities.

Vance’s Feb. 16 visit comes as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has informed Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine that his state “is not eligible for assistance at this time,” according to a statement on the governor’s website from earlier today.

FEMA told The Epoch Times in a Feb. 16 email that it is communicating with federal, state, and local authorities as tests of the air, water, and residents’ health are carried out.

“Obviously, I’m most concerned about the public safety component of this. Is the air breathable? Is the water drinkable? That’s the most important question,” Vance told the media.

“I have a few concerns on that front. First of all, we still don’t have the disaster cleaned up, so we still have toxic chemicals seeping into the water supply. That’s a real problem and I think, frankly, Norfolk Southern should be doing a lot more to clean up the contaminated soil.”

According to Vance, Norfolk Southern rapidly resumed travel after the derailment and burn, which DeWine and others have said was carried out to prevent an explosion.

“What I’ve heard from multiple people is that the accident happened [on Friday] and by Tuesday there were replacement rails allowing trains to run through that area. You cannot dig out and clean up an area if it’s covered by railroad tracks and there are trains going over it,” he said.

“The fact that they replaced the rails, I think, suggests they’re much more focused on reopening the railway than in cleaning up this community. That’s a big, big problem and it’s something we’re going to take to Norfolk Southern as soon as we leave this meeting.”

Representative from the railway backed out of a town hall in East Palestine yesterday over safety concerns.

The freshman senator from Ohio also voiced complaints about the response from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“We’ve been going back and forth with them for a couple of days, asking, ‘What are the acceptable levels of contamination here before this becomes endangering to human health?’ We have not yet gotten a good answer, and it’s something we’re going to keep hammering on,” he said.

Letter to Buttigieg

Vance’s visit to East Palestine, a community on the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line, came after Vance and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Feb. 15 expressing concerns that the incident reflected deeper problems with the resilience of the U.S. rail infrastructure.

“While railroad crews drained and burned chemicals to prevent a major explosion, concerns have grown in the weeks since of significant damage to the health of the surrounding environment and communities in the region,” Vance and Rubio wrote.

Vance also wrote to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on Feb. 15.

He asked Shaw to broaden the range of locals the railway will compensate, beyond those within a mile of the evacuation zone.

Another letter from Vance, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Sen. John Fetterman (D-Penn.), and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) was sent on Feb. 15 to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan.

“The impacted communities need further monitoring and assurance of safety of their homes, their water, and their soil,” the lawmakers said in the letter.
“As of the evening of Feb. 15, the EPA has completed 486 homes that have been screened, with 14 scheduled for today,” states a Feb. 16 update to EPA’s website on the derailment.

“Test results from the village’s municipal well sampling showed no water quality concerns.”

DeWine said on Feb. 15 that municipal water in East Palestine is safe for human consumption. His announcement cited testing by Ohio’s EPA.

“Because private water wells may be closer to the surface than the municipal water wells, the Ohio EPA recommends that those who receive drinking water from private water wells schedule an appointment for well water testing by an independent consultant,” DeWine’s announcement also states.

Yet, despite the reassurances of federal and state agencies, many locals are still worried about the possible dangers of airborne fallout from the toxic event.

Residents Worried About Toxic Fallout

Marilyn Figley, who lives on a homestead in the community with her husband, Bob, wonders whether eggs collected from her chickens are safe.
“I don’t know if the eggs are safe. I called the health department. They don’t know anything. The EPA hasn’t told me anything. We need to have somewhere we can go to get our food tested,” she told The Epoch Times on Feb. 14.
In a Feb. 15 Fox News broadcast of the Tucker Carlson Show, East Palestine locals Nathan and Kelly Izotic described some of what they’ve experienced since the derailment.

Nathan said the family’s dog had exhibited physical symptoms of “vomiting and acting lethargic.”

Since returning to the area after evacuation, he said he'd started to show physical symptoms of his own, including a chemical burn on his face.

Nathan said many in the area weren’t wealthy, making it hard for them to leave home for any length of time.

“Fortunately, we had a place to go on Sunday, whenever we got the two-mile evacuation order [from Gov. DeWine], but a lot of those families unfortunately didn’t,” he said.

The EPA’s Regan also visited East Palestine on Feb 16.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of the Biden administration’s response to the Feb. 3 derailment.

“It is unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up,” he said in a Feb. 16 press release.

Vance suggested the DOT can and should take additional steps, directing his remarks at Biden.

“The Department of Transportation–your Department of Transportation–has things it can do. Stop blaming Donald Trump, a guy who hasn’t been president for 3 years, and use the powers of the Federal Government to do the things necessary to help people in this community,” Vance told the media in East Palestine.

The Epoch Times has reached out to Norfolk Southern, FEMA, and the CDC for comment.

Nathan Worcester covers national politics for The Epoch Times and has also focused on energy and the environment. Nathan has written about everything from fusion energy and ESG to Biden's classified documents and international conservative politics. He lives and works in Chicago. Nathan can be reached at [email protected].
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