Still no word on disaster declaration for East Palestine
By STEPHANIE ELVERD
(Lisbon) Morning Journal
EAST PALESTINE — It’s been over nine months since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine and led to a release of hazardous chemicals over the village and surrounding communities, and it’s been over three months since Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine requested President Joe Biden issue a Major Presidential Disaster Declaration relating to the derailment.
To date, that declaration has not been made.
Biden did issue an Executive Order on Sept. 20 that instructed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to designate a federal disaster recovery coordinator to oversee the long-term recovery efforts. Jim McPherson, an emergency management specialist and experienced disaster recovery coordinator, was tabbed to conduct a comprehensive assessment of any unmet needs that are not addressed by Norfolk Southern and would qualify for federal assistance.
While the order was a step toward a disaster declaration, concerned residents like Jess Conard said action is needed now. Conard has been an outspoken advocate for the portion of the community who fears what the derailment and chemical release will mean in the immediate and long-term future. She has served as the Community Advocate for Erin Brockovich’s East Palestine Justice and as a board member for the grassroots Unity Council, before taking her current position of Appalachia Director for Beyond Plastics, an initiative to end plastic pollution.
“Biden’s complacency is striking. The ‘Making It Right’ campaign is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Conard. “Victims here haven been publicly recognized by the CDC and the EPA as being exposed to cancer-causing chemicals by the polluter. We have been told to just wait and get cancer.”
Conard was referring to an informational session on public health held in the village on June 6 and a comment from Dr. Arthur Chang of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chang stated that there was no way to reverse exposure to vinyl chloride or dioxin, but said if cancer should develop from that exposure, doctors will know how to treat residents.
Conard said that the health of East Palestine needs to be prioritized now and that the lack of indoor air monitoring to ensure homes in the village are safe is a definite need not being met by Norfolk Southern, or the EPA for that matter.
“I implore the appointed FEMA coordinator to recognize the critical need for direct health assessment and home air monitoring,” she said.
The EPA has repeatedly stood by its stance that rigourous testing of the air inside homes is not needed in the village or surrounding areas. Most recently, Region 5 EPA administrator Debra Shore during a press conference in the village two weeks ago, that “since the derailment more than 100 million air monitoring and sampling data points have been collected” and sampling results “continue to indicate no concerns with respect to derailment-related chemicals.”
That data was repeated in the EPA’s report submitted to Biden on Oct. 20.
The report was to comply with the executive order that also instructed the EPA to explain the status of derailment-related environmental sampling and monitoring within 30 days and to submit an updated report to the president every 60 days thereafter until all cleanup, assessment, and monitoring by Norfolk Southern has been work been completed.
In that report, released Thursday, the EPA stated that both air monitoring, (the use of electronic devices to provide real-time readings of contaminants in the air) and air sampling (collecting air over a period of time in a container and analyzing that air to identify and quantify specific compounds) were conducted directly after and in the months following the derailment along with water and soil sampling. The report said “this data collection continues, and ongoing science-based reviews show that residents of East Palestine are not in danger from contaminated drinking water, soil, or air from the derailment.”
The report also notes that “under the Home Safely Plan — launched as the evacuation order was lifted — more than 700 indoor air screenings were conducted” to determine if indoor air was safe for residents to return home.
Aside from conceding that contamination exists in the area waterways as a result of the rail disaster and chemicals spilled, the EPA report indicates no other areas of concern.
FEMA’s assessment of the response and recovery efforts is still ongoing. McPherson has reportedly met with village officials and local community leaders to determine whether unmet needs exist in East Palestine and the surrounding areas but there has been no confirmation if he has met with any concerned resident.
Both Republican Sen. J.D. Vance and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) have spoken out in support of a federal disaster declaration. The federal lawmakers have also penned letters to EPA Federal Administrator Michael Regan requesting the agency implement an extensive indoor air testing program in the village and consider declaring a public health emergency for East Palestine and the surrounding areas.