Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Sen. J.D. Vance, Pennsylvania neighbors of East Palestine, frustrated in wake of rail disaster

Norfolk Southern is turning its attention to remediating the areas around the train tracks, as seen here on June 26, 2023.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Norfolk Southern is turning its attention to remediating the areas around the train tracks, as seen here on June 26, 2023.

Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance said he is frustrated by the slow pace of cleanup in East Palestine after the toxic train derailment there in February. He met with local leaders to talk about the status of the cleanup Monday evening.

In June, Norfolk Southern completed remediation under both train tracks in East Palestine and has since begun remediating the surrounding areas. The company said it's does not know how long cleanup will take.

"I've been incredibly frustrated with the pace of the cleanup, the fact that I was told the cleanup would be done in June and then told the cleanup would be done at the end of July and then told the cleanup now is going to be done sometime next year," Vance said.

Vance criticized the Environmental Protection Agency for "dragging its feet" on its part of the cleanup, specifically approving plans to remove and dispose of toxic soil. He said Norfolk Southern is also to blame. Vance said his office will work with the EPA to figure out how to hasten the pace of cleanup. He also wants to work with the agency to get indoor air testing for East Palestine residents.

"The EPA is not actually doing the testing that would give you confidence that everything is fine, so, again, this is about basic good government," Vance said. "There was a chemical disaster here that people need their government to do a lot more and with a lot more competency to give them confidence that everything is going to be OK."

In a written statement, EPA Region 5 Public Information Officer Adrian Palomeque said the agency's priority is ensuring the health and safety of East Palestine residents.

"All the cleanup work being performed follow carefully drafted plans that are designed to reduce risks and minimize their impact in the daily lives of the residents," Palomeque said. "Although EPA continuously strives to advance in the cleanup process, the speed of the cleanup is secondary to the safety of residents and response workers. EPA is careful not to take shortcuts that could potentially compromise safety."

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Care about the environment? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

Vance also said the Senate should vote on the stalled Railway Safety Act soon.

The legislation was introduced after the derailment by Vance and Sen. Sherrod Brown. It would increase inspection of trains, require rail carriers to give advanced notice of what trains are carrying and strengthen regulation to prevent wheel bearing failure.

The bill is the first piece of major legislation in decades to better regulate the rail industry. Although it has strong bipartisan support, little movement has been made on the legislation since it passed out of committee in May.

"The rail lobby went to work to try to destroy the bill," Vance said.

He's calling on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to bring the bill up for a floor vote. Vance is confident the bill has enough bipartisan support to pass.

"If our collective response to East Palestine is to hope and pray that the railroads do a better job, then we're going to get screwed and this is going to happen again somewhere," Vance said. "Hopefully not Ohio, but it will happen somewhere eventually."

Local residents are also frustrated with the pace of cleanup and the lack of answers from government agencies.

Darlington Township residents pack into seats during a supervisors meeting.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Darlington Township residents packed a supervisors meeting on Aug. 14, 2023, to demand a seat at the table in deciding how half a million dollars of community relief money is spent.

Shortly after Vance's visit to East Palestine, the Darlington Township supervisors, just over the border in Pennsylvania, met and heard from dissatisfied residents.

Residents said they want input on how the township will spend $660,000 dollars of community relief money provided by Norfolk Southern. They packed the supervisors meeting Monday night to present their grievances.

Local leaders will decide how to spend the money and residents demanded a seat at the table. They want the money to be spent on indoor air monitoring, medical monitoring and relocation for residents.

Supervisor Mike Carreon shared many of residents' concerns and said Darlington Township has been left out of relief funding and discussions. The township is in continuing talks with Norfolk Southern.

Lori O'Connell has lived in Darlington Township for more than 30 years. She said her family has been experiencing health issues since the derailment.

"We've had multiple doctors visit in excess of 30, multiple prescriptions," O'Connell said. "There's been six antibiotics, three steroids, a Zofran prescription, creams, lotions, potions and everything that you can imagine."

O'Connell said her daughter has been experiencing muscle pain since the derailment and that her husband has cancer. Both her daughter and husband have tested positive for exposure to vinyl chloride, she said, and she has tested positive for exposure to benzine.

"Do you know what assistance my family has received from Norfolk Southern? Nothing," O'Connell said. "Do you know what I've gotten from my local government? Nothing. My county government? Nothing."

Residents also complained that local medical professionals don't know how to handle their exposure to the toxic chemicals released by the derailment.

"You know what the doctor wrote on our vinyl chloride papers when he saw the results? 'I don't know what to tell you. Contact an attorney,'" O'Connell recounted. "That's what he told us. That was his solution."

The supervisors' plan is to go slow in deciding the best way to spend the money from Norfolk Southern, Carreon said. He added that residents don't need to worry about misuse of the funds and that residents may yet be involved in the decision making process.

"It's early," Carreon said, "and we don't want to commit to anything and be wrong."

Carreon said the money from Norfolk Southern is "nothing" compared to the billions of dollars the company is worth.

Copyright 2023 Ideastream Public Media. To see more, visit Ideastream Public Media.

Abigail Bottar