Kim Lyons and Nick Evans, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 2, 2024
As the anniversary of Norfolk Southern’s train derailment in East Palestine approaches, political leaders are taking stock in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
East Palestine sits right along the Ohio Pennsylvania border, and on the evening of Feb. 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern train more than a mile long leapt the tracks on its way out of town, scattering dozens of train cars around the tracks. Initial reports from the National Transportation Safety Board suggest a hot bearing precipitated the accident.
Several of those train cars contained hazardous materials and caught fire in the crash. As first responders fought the blaze officials grew concerned about a series of cars containing vinyl chloride. The chemical is highly flammable, and with temperatures rising in the car, they worried it might explode.
Their solution was a “controlled venting” of the chemical. The resulting plume of black smoke was international news.
When vinyl chloride burns, it creates carbon monoxide and hydrogen chloride. When the latter mixes with water, you get hydrochloric acid – a corrosive substance that can burn the skin and eyes and is toxic if inhaled. Burning vinyl chloride also generates a small amount of phosgene gas, which was used as a chemical weapon on World War I battlefields.
In the days that followed, residents began to return, and complained about respiratory ailments among others. State and federal agencies worked to carry off contaminated soil and waste water, and began sampling local homes, water, soil and air.
In a call with reporters Wednesday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said “I’ve seen firsthand the strength and resilience of this community, the significant progress we’ve made on cleanup, and I’m confident in the community’s ability to bounce back stronger than ever before.”
There are certainly some in East Palestine who agree. East Palestine Councilwoman Linda May insists the majority of the village’s residents are ready to move on.
“This is a wonderful place to bring up your family,” she said, “It was and it still is.”
“The accident happened. We acknowledge it. But we’re not ready to clothe ourselves in sackcloth and ashes,” she added. “We’re going to move forward with our lives.”
In a speech from the U.S. Senate floor, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, touted the work of federal agencies and the response he’s seen from residents.
“When I think about East Palestine I don’t just think about a train derailment,” he said. “I think about the resilience they have shown the world.”
But the most significant legislative response to the crash – the bipartisan Railway Safety Act he’s sponsored by Brown and his Senate colleagues in Ohio and Pennsylvania – has yet to advance. Meanwhile, derailments actually climbed in 2023 following the East Palestine accident.
President Biden has announced plans to visit East Palestine in February to meet with residents, but his administration has not released details yet about the exact timing.
Local political action in Ohio
Despite Councilwoman May’s insistence, frustration with the response has prompted some in East Palestine to take political action.
Misti Allison joined the organization Moms Clean Air Force, and a few weeks after the crash, spoke before a U.S. Senate committee about its impact on her community. After that, she decided to run for mayor.
“That was not on my 2023 vision board at all,” she chuckled.
Last November, the incumbent, Trent Conaway defeated her in the election. But she said the idea of running in the first place likely wouldn’t have occurred to her if not for the accident.
Allison has a Masters in Public Health and previously worked for the Cleveland Clinic and nonprofits including the American Cancer society. More recently she took a remote gig in tech. A year ago, Allison was juggling two kids, a job and caring for her mother who was fighting stage four lymphoma. Not long after the crash, her mother passed away.
“My life was really full,” Allison said, “I was really just trying to stay afloat as a mom and a daughter and managing all the things of a busy mom.”
When she explains her decision to run, Allison talks about wanting to “reunite” the town.
“There are so many different experiences. We’re all going through this same trauma, but everybody responds to that in different ways,” she said. “They have different perspectives, different beliefs, attitudes, different skill sets to go through this.”
From her perspective there are two schools of thought in East Palestine. One says it’s been a year, and it’s time to move on. Residents were rattled, sure, but there’s been no permanent damage, even if recovery and remediation work is ongoing.
The other is waiting for the next shoe to drop. “How can you move forward when essentially the eye of the hurricane is still on you?” Allison described.
Part of that frustration has its roots in the immediate response. Allison compared the influx of state and federal agencies divvying up responsibilities to the meme of three spidermen pointing at one another. “You could have like 20 different spidermen pointing the finger at each other,” she said. Allison argued that delegation of authority can make it difficult for residents to know who to hold accountable. As an example, she pointed to the chemical ‘sheen’ that remains on some local creeks.
“Ohio EPA was saying well it’s the sediment in the creek that’s contaminated, so that’s U.S. EPA because sediment is soil,” she said. “And then U.S. EPA is saying, it’s water, so Ohio EPA needs to take care of it. And then East Palestine residents are going, we don’t care who is doing this, just roll up your sleeves and work together and get it done.”
Even outside of public office Allison says she’s advocating for her community. Looking ahead, the most important response she wants to see is passage of The Railway Safety Act.
Another East Palestine resident is channeling his frustration into a congressional bid. Rick Tsai has practiced as a chiropractor in the area for 30 years. Now he’s seeking the Republican nomination for former U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson’s seat after the congressman resigned to lead Youngstown State University.
“When you see things like (the derailment) happen, and you’re told everything is fine, two things happen,” he said. “At first, you’re angry, but then you almost go into like a zombie state, when there’s no ramifications and nothing happens. You kind of give up and lose hope.”
That’s where Tsai was late last year. Then one evening before Christmas his wife told him he should run for Johnson’s seat.
“That was the first thing she said to me when I walked in the door,” Tsai recalled. “I just stood there. And I thought for about 30 seconds, and I said, you know what, I will.”
Tsai argued East Palestine offers a microcosm of voters’ broader frustration with elected officials.
“These people have been abandoned,” he insisted. “And I’ll be selfish — I’ve been abandoned. We have a well, and we’re afraid this stuff is going to get in our well.”
“There’s corruption at the local, state and federal level,” he added, “and that is taking place in everybody’s town.”
Tsai is running in Ohio’s 6th congressional district, which includes 10 and a half counties along the state’s eastern edge. He insists he’s not a single-issue candidate, and he’s been participating in debates and speaking with different stakeholders throughout the district.
Still, he does have some ideas on how to improve the East Palestine response. Like Allison, he wants to see the Railway Safety Act pass, and said he’d sign on to the bill his first day in office. But he also wants to see the federal government take steps to help East Palestine residents relocate if they want.
“We’re not even asking for a handout,” he argued. “Give us low or no interest loans that don’t have to be paid back until your current home sells. These people can’t pay two mortgages, and there are people who are paying two mortgages.”
Tsai argued officials have taken similar steps to prop up local businesses. Thursday, Gov. DeWine announced two more such loans offered through the Department of Development. The assistance is forgivable if it’s used for payroll, rent, mortgage or replacing inventory lost in the derailment. The program is capped at $5 million and so far the state has given out $3.45 million.
Because Johnson resigned his seat early, there will actually be two primary elections on the March 19th ballot. One of them will be for the remainder of Johnson’s term, while the other is for the upcoming term starting Jan. 2025. In the Republican primary, Tsai is competing against two state lawmakers — Rep. Reggie Stoltzfus, R-Paris Township, and Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem. The Democrats running for the nomination include Rylan Finzer and Michael Kripchak.
The view from Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio (D-17th District) introduced a bill with Rep. Nick LaLota (R-NY) last year aimed at overhauling rail safety to prevent future derailments like the one in East Palestine. Deluzio represents the communities over the Pennsylvania border that were affected — his constituents in Darlington, Pa. were evacuated last February during Norfolk Southern’s controlled release of toxic chemicals caused by the derailment.
A companion bill to the Senate Railway Safety Act of 2023, the legislation called for sweeping reforms, including safety regulations to reduce blocked rail crossings, would require railroads to operate with crews of at least two people, and would increase fines for rail carriers. Deluzio said that could mean the difference between the current maximum fines of $100,000 to $250,000 to one percent of the railroad’s operating revenue. But nearly a year later, as the first anniversary of the derailment approaches, neither Deluzio’s bill or its Senate counterpart have been passed, despite bipartisan support in both chambers.
“We’re coming up on a year and I can’t even get the Republican leadership to get us a hearing in there,” Deluzio told the Capital-Star. “They’re doing the bidding of the big railroads here at the expense of the good people I represent and our neighbors in Ohio and folks like us who live close to these tracks all over the country.”
He added that he doesn’t think it’s simply ineptitude that is preventing Congressional action on the legislation. “I think this bill has not yet passed because the railroads are powerful, and politicians who carry their water are doing their bidding to block it,” Deluzio said.
He said he was encouraged that Norfolk Southern announced this week it was joining a pilot program of the Confidential Close Call Reporting System, (C3RS) an anonymous “near-miss” reporting system. C3RS would allow rail employees to report near-misses or close calls on railroads when they see them. Pennsylvania Sens. John Fetterman and Bob Casey both hailed the move as long overdue.
“With families in Darlington still hurting from last year’s derailment, we must do more to support communities suffering from the reckless failures of big rail companies and prevent Pennsylvanians from ever having to go through this hell again,” Casey said in a statement on Tuesday.
Under the terms of the system, employees who do so cannot be disciplined for reporting such events, which the New York Times reported in August had been one of the reasons the railroad was reluctant to join.
“I want to see all the Class 1 big railroads be part of it, I want to see it nationwide,” Deluzio said, not just Norfolk Southern, who I think a year out has a lot of work to do to earn back trust in my community.”
Fetterman agreed that joining the C3RS was a good move but that more was needed. “This is a positive step, but the fact that they haven’t committed to covering all workers in Pennsylvania – one of the two states most deeply affected by the toxic derailment a year ago – is just not enough,” he said in a statement. “We need rail companies to implement these safety measures nationwide, and before a derailment, not after.”
Rachel Meyer, who lives about 20 miles from the derailment site in Beaver County, Pa. said she believes the federal government can and should do more to help residents in the area of the derailment, and that the railroad has yet to fulfill its promises to help the community.
“Almost 11 months ago, I was in the Senate hearing where Alan Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern, said over and over again that he’s determined to make it right,” Meyer said. Many residents still have health concerns and needs that are not being met, she added, and in many cases, ignored altogether. “They had no control over this disaster which just turned their lives upside down and they will be dealing with it for years to come.”
Meyer said much of the focus over the past year has been on holding the rail industry accountable, but her attention has been on the chemicals the train was carrying, and the health effects neighbors are still struggling with. She also lives near a Shell ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, which exceeded its annual pollution allowances less than four months after it came online.
“There’s certainly still people dealing with rashes as chemicals have continued to turn up and they’re re-exposed,” she said. “People are still dealing with chemicals in their homes that are making them feel sick. And the most upsetting impacts are on kids. Kids developing asthma in the past year, continuing to have nosebleeds and skin rashes.”
John Feltz is Railroad Director with the Transport Workers Union, which represents workers in all 13 of the national rail workers’ unions. In September, Dennis Sabina, a carman and member of Local 2035 Transportation Workers of America (TWU), said that the railroads wanted to reduce the number of workers on trains like the one that derailed in East Palestine to just one per train. Six months later, Feltz says, things are not much improved.
“The whole industry is a disastrous, dangerous mess with derailments every day, staff shortages and many other problems caused by terrible management and greedy owners,” Feltz said in an email to the Capital-Star. “Congress must pass the Railway Safety Act as quickly as possible.”
For his part, Deluzio said he will keep pushing for passage of the legislation, and was glad to have the support of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg who reiterated the need for Congress to act during a visit to Pittsburgh on Jan. 26.
“Look, [Ohio Sen.] J.D. Vance and I don’t agree on a lot of things, but we agree on making sure our constituents aren’t people the railroads just treat as collateral damage,” Deluzio said. “We’ve gotten co-sponsors from everywhere from the Freedom Caucus to a bunch of other Republican groups. So we’re finding willing partners who understand that their constituents’ safety and lives are more important than big railroad profits.”
Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: email@example.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.