EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (NewsNation) — It isn’t the disaster declaration the residents of East Palestine and the surrounding region were hoping for, but it’s a possible first step: President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to appoint a dedicated coordinator for the recovery efforts.
The White House says the order is intended to “continue to hold Norfolk Southern accountable” in the wake of the disaster last February.
“The coordinator will conduct a comprehensive assessment of any unmet needs that are not addressed by Norfolk Southern and would qualify for federal assistance. The coordinator will also collaborate with federal, state and local governments, the private sector and voluntary faith-based and community organizations supporting the recovery,” a White House statement read in part.
The executive order also requires the Environmental Protection Agency provide a report within 30 days of the status of air, soil and water in the community. It also requires the Department of Health and Human Services to give a report within two months summarizing their conclusions from public health testing.
As to whether a public health emergency needs to be declared, East Palestine resident Hillary Flint says she’s leaving the area for health reasons, but told NewsNation announcement of a coordinator is a good start.
“Do we have to wait for more people to get cancer? Do we have to wait for more heart attacks? Do we have to wait for more sick children?” said Flint. “There’s no direct relief for us residents. And that’s what we need. And that’s what we’ve needed.”
The nonpartisan watchdog group Government Accountability Project on Thursday announced its intention to sue the EPA for documents related to the disaster and recovery efforts.
The lack of a disaster declaration has been a key concern for many residents of the area where the derailment happened near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, but officials said this situation doesn’t easily fit the definition of a disaster because Norfolk Southern is paying to clean up the mess and help the town recover so unpaid bills aren’t piling up. The railroad has committed $95 million to the town already as part of a response the railroad expects to cost at least $803 million.
The railroad has reimbursed residents for relocation costs since the derailment and compensated the fire department for equipment that was damaged while fighting the fire and dealing with the chemicals that were released after the derailment. Norfolk Southern has also promised to pay for upgrading East Palestine’s parks and water treatment center. And just Thursday, the Atlanta-based railroad announced plans to build a $20 million training center for first responders in East Palestine.
Norfolk Southern has also said it will establish funds to pay for lost home values, any long-term health concerns and water contamination issues that result from the derailment. The railroad announced a preliminary program to compensate homeowners earlier this week although the final details of those funds are still being negotiated with Ohio officials.