We'll be hearing about East Palestine, Ohio for a long time. But will anything change?

Bruce Siwy
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

Before Feb. 3, there were many more likely political Alamos than East Palestine, Ohio.

This rural community at the border of Pennsylvania has become a literal stumping ground since a Norfolk Southern train derailment sent hazardous chemicals into the air and water table. Republicans of both state and national stature have made the towns' plight a primary talking point in an attempt to paint Democrats as unsympathetic and unresponsive.

Over the past several days, former President Donald Trump, who visited the train derailment site Wednesday, has repeatedly criticized President Joe Biden for not visiting the area.

"I've always said to reporters that Republicans are masterful at using the current political climate to their advantage," said Doug Wilson, a North Carolina Democratic strategist who has helped advise the presidential campaigns of both Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

But environmentalists and labor groups want the political posturing to ignite change. They say leaders can reduce the likelihood of these accidents occurring again by tackling corporate greed — and addressing missteps of presidents past and present.

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'Bad optics'

Much of the GOP criticism has centered on the response to the derailment.

Ohio's Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said FEMA initially denied his call for resources — the East Palestine area was deemed ineligible because FEMA is "most typically involved with disasters where there is tremendous home or property damage," but the agency later committed to sending a senior response official and an incident management team. Trump quickly credited himself for FEMA's reversal.

"Biden and FEMA said they would not be sending federal aid to East Palestine. As soon as I announced that I’m going, he announced a team will go," Trump said in a mailer from his presidential campaign.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the East Palestine Fire Department as he visits the area in the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern train derailment Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Freed)

Trump visited the town Wednesday to deliver more than a dozen pallets of water, donate thousands of gallons of cleaning supplies and ostensibly tout his "America First" slogan as Biden completed a trip to Poland and war-torn Ukraine.

To Wilson, Biden's absence has been "bad optics." He said he's already heard GOP insiders discussing how they'll benefit politically from the responses to the derailment.

"I think it's going to hurt the optics politically because Biden went to Ukraine while people in East Palestine, Ohio, are hurting," he said.

February 20, 2023: US President Joe Biden (C-L) walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-R) at St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral during an unannounced visit, to Kyiv. - US President Joe Biden promised increased arms deliveries for Ukraine during a surprise visit to Kyiv, in which he also vowed Washington's "unflagging commitment" to defending Ukraine's territorial integrity.

The implications go beyond the White House, according to Wilson. He believes the GOP could use the situation to retake Congress by attempting to unseat U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

"I can see Republicans running ads saying, 'Sherrod Brown is a puppet of the Biden administration, and he did not respond quickly enough to the derailment.' That's my concern as a Democratic strategist," Wilson said. "It's too much of a layup for Republicans."

Some of Pennsylvania's GOP lawmakers have swarmed the incident as well. State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams/Franklin) — a former gubernatorial nominee and chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee — scheduled a hearing Feb. 23 in Monaca, about 20 miles from East Palestine.

The purpose of the hearing, according to Mastriano's team, was to gather testimony from Norfolk Southern, impacted residents, local officials, state agency administrators and the office of his former rival: Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro.

"Shapiro has not issued any emergency declaration nor guidance for water and air safety and has been in Arizona this past weekend, while federal officials such as U.S. Secretary of Transportation Peter Buttigieg spoke today to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., and refused to even discuss this major disaster, while joking about the 'safety risks of balloons,'" Mastriano said in a Feb. 15 press release.

The emergency preparedness committee's minority chair, state Sen. Katie Muth (D-Berks/Chester/Montgomery), wrote in a separate release that she found it "disturbing" that rail company brass refused to testify at the public event in Monaca.

"(Norfolk Southern) must be held accountable," Muth said, "and they must answer the questions of impacted residents and our elected officials.” 

Shapiro has blamed Norfolk Southern for confusion and miscommunication related to the incident. He said the company initially provided inaccurate information and conflicting modeling data during a press conference with DeWine and federal Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan on Feb. 21.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro speak during a news conference at the East Palestine community center.

"We're making sure that Norfolk Southern reimburses the fire departments for any equipment contaminated or damaged," said Shapiro, who also announced that he'd made a criminal referral on the rail company to his old colleagues at the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General.

But proactive measures, according to environmentalists and rail union reps, are more critical than reactive ones. Apparent apathy has been at least one of the hurdles, they say.

'It should not take a tragedy'

In a Feb. 16 letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Earthjustice attorneys Kristen L. Boyles and Patti A. Goldman noted that the Biden administration has continued to ignore a 2018 appeal of more lenient braking requirements implemented during the Trump era.

"The response to our appeal from the department has been silence, despite the fact that PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) regulations require a response of some sort from the agency within 90 days. ... We frankly expected little response from the department under the prior administration — after all, it had just eliminated the updated brake requirements — but the silence has continued well into (the) Biden administration," Boyles and Goldman wrote. "It should not take a tragedy like the recent hazardous train derailment in Ohio and the devastation it brought to the community of East Palestine, with water contamination, air pollution, and harm to human health, to turn attention to this issue again."

The cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.

Electronically controlled pneumatic brakes are the key, said Cindy Carr, press secretary for the nonprofit Sierra Club.

Known as ECP brakes, these systems are widely acknowledged as a significant safety upgrade. They wouldn't have prevented the equipment failure, Carr said, but they would have allowed workers to slow or stop the train more safely once the fire was detected.

"Trump (also) defunded and failed to approve members for the Chemical Safety Board, which reviews accidents after they happen. Biden's team just got several nominees approved," Carr said.

Vinyl chloride, she added, is too toxic for use. She wants to see PVC and vinyl created from other materials instead.

"Chemical regulations should force the substitution of high hazard chemicals for safer products," Carr said.

Labor dispute between rail workers, company

Additional safety concerns have been at the center of a long-standing dispute between rail giants and big labor. Workers' unions have threatened to strike after three years of unsuccessful contract negotiations.

In September, the Biden administration asked Congress to intervene by invoking the Railway Labor Act of 1926, which gives federal lawmakers the authority to impose a contract themselves.

The agreement included a compounded 24% wage increase over five years and other benefits. But it didn't address many of the safety concerns identified by labor groups.

One such group, SMART Transportation Division, has had several grievances with recent rail practices, including:

  • Staffing cuts.
  • Increasing the average length of a train.
  • Reducing locomotive safety inspection times, as the industry standard three-minute car inspection has been slashed to 60-90 seconds.

"As long as it is more profitable to clean up a disaster than to prevent one," SMART T-D President Jeremy Ferguson said in a recent news release, "these Wall Street-driven rail corporations will continue to hold communities like East Palestine, Ohio, hostage."

What's next? Freight reforms?

While East Palestine seems unlikely to enter the history books as one of the worst freight disasters in American history, it could go down as one of the most impactful.

During their Feb. 21 press conference, DeWine announced that he and Shapiro will press Congress to pass freight reforms. He noted that trains can carry hazardous materials across state lines without giving prior notice.

"It's just absurd," DeWine said. "It makes absolutely no sense at all."

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine speaks during a news conference at the East Palestine community center.

In Harrisburg, the state Senate Transportation Committee is set to meet Feb. 27.

The committee's majority chair, state Sen. Wayne Langerholc (R-Cambria/Centre/Clearfield), has asked the public to submit questions on the transportation of hazardous materials to his website at senatorlangerholc.com/rail-safety. He noted in a press release that Pennsylvania has the most operating railroads in the nation and ranks fifth in total track mileage.

As the TV crews leave and social media chatter fades to a murmur, activists hope that these politicians remember the lessons of East Palestine even off of the campaign trail.

"A company whose primary interest is its bottom line," PennFuture CEO and President Patrick McDonnell said, "should not be making decisions about people’s health and safety,”

Bruce Siwy is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Pennsylvania state capital bureau. He can be reached at bsiwy@gannett.com or on Twitter at @BruceSiwy.