EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WKBN) – Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and First Lady Fran DeWine joined officials for the interagency joint press conference Wednesday, which gives a daily update on the activities for remediation in East Palestine following the train derailment.
DeWine announced he has met with leaders of both Norfolk Southern and CSX to come up with a plan for them to participate in the training of first responders in derailments. He said there would be an announcement about the program in the future, and added that $800,000 in grants will be provided for hazardous materials training.
“Most of the rail miles are in rural areas. The reality is in most places, volunteer firefighters are most likely there first. The fact and need to have them trained and the railroad to be part of the training is a big goal of mine,” DeWine said.
DeWine also commended the lawmakers and the hearings happening in Ohio but said changes to regulations have to come from Congress. He applauded the bipartisan Rail Safety Act of 2023 that was introduced today.
The Rail Safety Act calls for increasing fines, increasing rules on hazardous trains, increasing Hazmat training, accelerating the timeline for phasing in safer tank cars and requiring two person crews.
Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) administrator Amit Bose said that his agency has started a nationwide inspection program focused on routes that carry highly flammable, hazardous materials. He said the inspections will begin in East Palestine, where Norfolk Southern trains pass through every 20 minutes or so. The inspections will combine humans and technology.
“We will evaluate the conditions of track quality using our automated track inspection program, signal and train control infrastructure and systems, operating practices dispatch and crew, mechanical equipment including tank cars used to transport hazardous materials, and hazardous material packaging,” Bose said.
Bose said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who visited East Palestine last week, has asked the class one railroads, including Norfolk Southern, to join the FRA’s close call program.
“FRA also issued a safety advisory just yesterday about hot bearing wayside detectors,” Bose said.
All the data and information collected through the inspections will be used for changing railroad regulations, along with enforcement and compliance.
Also, as part of the interagency joint press conference, federal and state agencies said they are continuing to monitor the air and water and that water and air sampling have come back with no exceedances.
DeWine said Feb. 21 private well results were “all clear.”
Debra Shore with the U.S. EPA said they are moving their staging area closer to Columbiana to free up space in East Palestine and wanted a designated area to park their trucks and trailers.
“Even though we are moving our command post, we are not leaving East Palestine. We are committed to this community,” she said.
Shore also announced a community meeting Thursday at 6 p.m. at the high school and said that the EPA has ordered Norfolk Southern to be there. Citing threats, the company declined to attend a previous meeting.
Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff addressed health concerns and a question about if enough is being done at the clinic. He said that extensive health evaluations are being conducted at the clinic and doctors are recommending whether someone needs to follow up with their healthcare provider and other next steps.
“There is no blood test or urine test for vinyl chloride,” he said.
Vanderhoff added that he has not seen anything alarming and that he has spoken to many people and is confident in the air and water quality in East Palestine.
As part of their stop in the village, DeWine and Fran visited Sulphur Run and Leslie Run earlier in the day, where surface water testing and sediment washing are underway.
The governor was wearing a boot cast due to an injury to his leg from his last visit to East Palestine.
The DeWines were joined by Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Anne Vogel and Vanderhoff.
They were told about 5,000 cubic yards of soil have been removed, but when the replacement of the track happens, six times that amount will be remediated.
Contaminated water from the site is processed on the scene and stored in tanks before being trucked to a rail yard in Lordstown and taken to disposal well sites, most of which will go to Texas and some to a site in Vickery, Ohio, for final disposal.
DeWine said the cleanup is a “huge operation” but that he is impressed by the work that is being done so far. It was the first time that he has been down to the derailment site to watch the cleanup efforts.
“The whole goal here is to make this community safe,” he said, but he said it “can’t happen overnight.”
Water is being aerated to add oxygen and break down compounds in the water. The creek bed is also being churned up so that contaminated material there can come to the surface and be vacuumed away for disposal. The operation there runs 24/7.
Vogel said there is evidence that the cleanup is working.
“We’ve seen fish populations being restored. We’ve seen the aquatic life coming back 4 miles away, so it’s getting closer. So it’s a matter of time,” she said. “Things will be restored.”
The group then stopped at East Palestine High School, where Mike DeWine met with the district superintendent Chris Neifer.
He and Fran also joined students and staff in the high school’s cafeteria, where they chatted, signed autographs and posed for pictures.
On Tuesday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited the school. He talked with students and staff about the impact that the derailment has left.
The First Lady also went to The Brightside Project in Salem, where she helped pack boxes of supplies for a distribution happening Saturday.
The religious-based non-profit is putting together a big distribution drive this Saturday near the East Palestine Schools’ campus to help families in need in the village, as well as surrounding communities.
“We have been so blessed with product to give to them that the best thing that we could come up with was to take a convoy into town and do a community-wide distribution. So that’s kinda where the idea for Saturday came from. It’s the best way we can get all this product out to the families in the most time-efficient kind of way,” said Lisa Wallace with The Brightside Project.
Organizers say they’ve been receiving goods donated through the Amazon Wishlist program, as well as from individuals the world over.
They hope to pass out food, water and other necessities to help 700 families Saturday afternoon and 1,000 children.