FEMA withholds help as East Palestine seeks federal assistance

(NewsNation) — The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has denied assistance as Gov. Mike DeWine seeks federal help for the residents of East Palestine, according to a release from his office.

According to the release, DeWine spoke with White House officials early on Thursday morning to request additional help amid concerns over the release of toxic chemicals following a Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment, in which about 50 freight cars derailed, 10 of which were carrying hazardous materials.

DeWine also requested assistance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Health and Emergency Response Team and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The DeWine Administration has been in daily contact with FEMA to discuss the need for federal support,” the release stated. “However FEMA continues to tell Governor DeWine that Ohio is not eligible for assistance at this time. Governor DeWine will continue working with FEMA to determine what assistance can be provided.”

Dan Tierney, a spokesperson for DeWine, told Fox News Digital, that FEMA didn’t believe the incident qualified as a traditional disaster.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Thursday there were multiple federal agencies present in the neighborhood and “President Biden spoke directly to Gov. DeWine to offer federal assistance.”

Jean-Pierre said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been on the ground since Feb. 4 “working hand in glove with the state and local officials who are leading the emergency response efforts.”

The release of toxic chemicals threatened the health of thousands of people and forced a community evacuation. Although an evacuation order has now been lifted, there is an ongoing concern among residents over air and water quality.

Residents still worry about persistent odors following the huge plumes of smoke they saw. The plume was visible emerging through cloud cover in the days following the derailment by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite.

“Intense,” said now evacuated East Palestine resident Scott Mcaleer. “You could feel the heat when I was sitting in my truck.”

Some residents have reported a burning sensation in their eyes as well as headaches. Others have said they have seen dead fish in area streams, or had livestock die.

DeWine sent a letter to the CDC requesting that they “immediately send medical experts to East Palestine” to evaluate and counsel members of the community who have questions or are experiencing symptoms.

Officials say they have removed close to a million gallons of contaminants from the site.

According to the Ohio EPA, the latest air monitoring results continue to show no presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the train derailment.

Sulphur Run, a creek that flows through downtown, has been dammed on both sides of the crash site. Crews are pumping clean water around the site so more contaminants don’t end up downstream, especially as rain moves into the forecast.

The Ohio EPA also said a chemical plume of butyl acrylate in the Ohio River that stems from the derailment is well below the parts per billion that the CDC considers hazardous. They also said no vinyl chloride has been detected in the Ohio River. 

Out of an abundance of caution, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission and other agencies along the river are actively sampling water at strategic locations and are closing drinking water intakes in advance of the plume to prevent any butyl acrylate from entering the drinking water.

Additionally, the U.S. EPA reports that it is not detecting any airborne phosgene or mineral acids, which were chemicals of concern directly related to the controlled burn process.

Several lawsuits have been filed following the disaster. One lawsuit alleges Norfolk Southern’s efforts to clean up and mitigate the incident have instead worsened the situation.

“After Norfolk Southern allegedly failed to extinguish the fires resulting from its derailment,” the lawsuit states, “it purportedly blew holes in the cars containing vinyl chloride, dumping 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride into the East Palestine, OH area.”

According to the EPA, this is more than double the amount of vinyl chloride all industrial emitters release in the United States over the course of a year.

“I’m not sure Norfolk Southern could have come up with a worse plan to address this disaster,” said attorney John Morgan. “Residents exposed to vinyl chloride may already be undergoing DNA mutations that could linger for years or even decades before manifesting as terrible and deadly cancers. The lawsuit alleges that Norfolk Southern made it worse by essentially blasting the town with chemicals as they focused on restoring train service and protecting their shareholders.”

VICE reported that rail workers say they knew the train that derailed in East Palestine was dangerous.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw penned a letter to the East Palestine community stating, “I know you have questions about whether Norfolk Southern will be here to help make things right. We are here and will stay here for as long as it takes.”

The company said it has completed more than 400 in-home air tests in conjunction with the EPA and other governmental agencies, and has not detected substances related to the incident, which does not indicate health risks.

The company also said it has implemented an extensive outdoor air monitoring program in the community.

On Wednesday, Norfolk Southern announced it had expanded the geographic area eligible for community assistance, adding an additional zip code following a further review of areas affected.

The company is offering “reimbursements for costs and inconvenience related to evacuating the region.”

Norfolk Southern said it has given out more than $1.7 million to more than 1,300 families but it is not offering buyouts or urging anyone’s relocation.

NewsNation spoke to one resident, however, who said Norfolk Southern is helping him pay for his first and last month’s rent if he moves.

“I’m not going back into that house ever. We’re not going to live there. My babies aren’t going to live there. It’s unsafe,” said East Palestine resident Chris Wallace.

With the community now in the national spotlight, EPA administrator Michael Regan visited the area Thursday to assess the ongoing response and hear from impacted residents.

“Today I am in East Palestine, Ohio to meet with residents and emergency responders,” he tweeted. “EPA, in coordination with the State of Ohio, will be here as long as it takes to ensure the safety of this community. We will get through this together and we’re not going anywhere until we do.”

Regan sought to reassure residents who are skeptical of testing results that say the air is safe to breathe and the water is fit for drinking.

“I’m asking they trust the government. I know that’s hard. We know there’s a lack of trust,” Regan said. “We’re testing for everything that was on that train.”

There have been renewed calls for Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to visit the derailment site.

The National Transportation Safety Board is the acting lead safety agency and NewsNation was told that the Department of Transportation has had people on the ground since the immediate aftermath of the derailment. 

So far, however, Buttigieg hasn’t announced any plans to visit.

Jean-Pierre said on Thursday the White House continues to have confidence in Secretary Buttigieg.

On Wednesday night, hundreds of residents in East Palestine turned out for a community meeting, where they grilled government officials about water and air quality following the derailment.

Mayor Trent Conaway tried his best to keep the meeting orderly as people shouted questions in the packed gymnasium at East Palestine High School.

“My greatest concern is that my citizens feel safe,” Conaway said.

The lack of information coming from officials is frustrating residents, including Chris Wallace, who said, “They’re not answering anything, from what I’ve seen, at all.”


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