President Joe Biden finally took steps to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the devastating train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a full six-months after the February 3 disaster spilled toxic chemicals into the town.
The railroad industry has been in the spotlight ever since the crash, which occurred close to the Pennsylvania border and prompted evacuation, health worries, a massive ongoing cleanup as well as calls for reforms.
Biden’s new executive order will put a halt to Ohio’s emergency major disaster declaration in regards to the derailment. The president has yet to visit the town despite having promised to do so all the way back in March claiming earlier this month that he’s ‘too busy’ to make the journey.
The order will ‘ensure that Norfolk Southern continues to be held accountable for this disaster, to address any of the disaster’s long-term effects, and to ensure federal assistance is available to affected communities should needs develop that are not met by Norfolk Southern,’ according to the White House.
The order will also see a Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator appointed in order to deal with long-term clean-up in East Palestine. The coordinator will ensure that Norfolk Southern meets its ‘obligations to the community.’
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains days after the derailment
‘The Coordinator will also collaborate with the Federal, State and local governments, the private sector and voluntary, faith-based and community organizations supporting the recovery,’ the order reads.
The Environmental Protection Agency is still working on taking contaminated soil and wastewater from the area.
The EPA is responsible for ensuring that Norfolk Southern is complying with the White House’s order.
‘Moving forward, EPA will provide the President with an updated report every 60 days until all cleanup, assessment, and monitoring work required by EPA’s Order has been completed,’ the White House’s statement on the order read.
In addition, the order will force the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC to submit the results of public health testing to Biden.
The Department of Transportation meanwhile will report to Biden on the train situation in East Palestine.
In response to the bill, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown said: ‘This is an overdue but welcomed step to support the people of East Palestine.’
The White House has been consistently criticized of Biden’s failure to visit East Palestine. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and EPA administrator Michael Regan have made multiple trips to the stricken area.
On Monday, Norfolk Southern announced new details about its plan to compensate East Palestine residents for lost home values since the derailment.
The railroad’s program will no doubt be welcomed by some people who want to sell their homes and move away from the town rather than deal with the lingering health worries.
But some critics say the railroad should be doing more to address those health concerns instead of worrying so much about economic recovery in the area.
And the details are still tentative because the Ohio Attorney General’s office is still negotiating an agreement that will create a long-term fund to compensate homeowners along with two other funds to pay for any health problems or water contamination issues that crop up down the road.
The Attorney General’s office said it’s not clear when those funds will be finalized because of all the unanswered questions at this stage.
Already, the railroad estimates that the cleanup will cost more than $800 million, which includes $74 million that Norfolk Southern has pledged to East Palestine to help the town recover.
That total will continue to grow as the cleanup continues, the funds are finalized and various lawsuits move forward. The railroad will also get compensation from its insurers and likely other companies involved in the derailment.
‘This is another step in fulfilling our promise to East Palestine to make it right. Norfolk Southern is steadfast in keeping our commitments, including protecting the home values of the community,’ said CEO Alan Shaw, who is working to improve safety on the railroad.
‘This program aims to give homeowners the reassurance they need.’
Regulators say Norfolk Southern has made improvements since a fiery Ohio derailment but still falls well short of being the ‘gold standard for safety’
Several residents said that urinalysis tests revealed at least trace amounts of vinyl chloride in their systems, raising fears about potential long-term health problems including a heightened risk of cancer
The new program will pay homeowners in East Palestine and the surrounding area about five miles around the derailment the difference between the appraised market value of their homes and the sale price.
But accepting compensation through the program will require homeowners to forego property damage claims they might eventually collect as part of one of the lawsuits against the railroad.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, praised the railroad for following through on the commitment it made in the spring. ‘I intend to keep the pressure on Norfolk Southern to make things right for the community,’ he said.
JD Vance, one of Ohio’s U.S. Senators who proposed a package of railroad safety reforms after the derailment that is still awaiting a vote, said he remains skeptical of Norfolk Southern.
‘My expectations that they will deliver on their promises are low,’ said Vance, a Republican. ‘I will continue to hold the railroad and its backers in Congress accountable for the promises they made to Ohioans.’