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After roundtable, Ohio Dems talk next steps following Norfolk Southern derailment




COLUMBUS, OH — FEBRUARY 15: Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and Assistant Minority Whip Sen. Paula Hicks-Hudson, D-Toledo, Senate Minority Leader Nickie J. Antonio, D-Lakewood, state Rep. Lauren McNally, D-Youngstown, and interested parties from environmental and agricultural groups on the state, federal and nonprofit levels talk to the press about concerns following the East Palestine train derailment, its environmental impacts, and potential policy solutions, February 15, 2023, at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal)

Ohio Statehouse Democrats have been in discussions with environmental groups and first responders to talk about how to help East Palestine recover from the toxic chemicals leaked as a result of a Norfolk Southern train derailment.

Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, joined with Assistant Minority Whip Sen. Paula Hicks-Hudson, D-Toledo, and state Rep. Lauren McNally, whose 59th House District includes East Palestine, to talk about protecting residents and bringing federal resources to the area.

“What we’re looking at is a town and the citizens of this town that are being hit with a big question mark,” Hicks-Hudson said.

The town was tipped into panic after a Norfolk Southern train transporting various chemicals, among them toxic vinyl chloride, derailed, spilling the chemicals and causing an areal evacuation ordered by Gov. Mike DeWine.

Though the residents have been allowed back, the leak and the subsequent clean up methods have left many residents and state leaders wondering how the derailment happened and what the environmental effects will be for years to come.

There have already been reports of animal deaths and sicknesses connected to the chemical spill, and alerts that not only the local water supply but the Ohio River may have been infiltrated by vinyl chloride and the other contaminants housed in the train cars.

In a Tuesday press conference, DeWine and other state officials said the leak and fire used to burn off the chemicals killed off thousands of fish in the waterways, though vinyl chloride has not been found in downriver water samples.

One week on from the lifting of the evacuation order, Democrats say they are looking to work with Republicans on legislative fixes to the faults spotlighted by the derailment. To prepare themselves, Antonio, Hicks-Hudson, and particularly McNally met with first responders and environmentalists to talk about how to respond to the incident, and how to prevent it from happening again.

“It’s not just East Palestine and it’s not just the residents, it’s the businesses, it’s the entire Mahoning Valley,” McNally said. “It goes to show you how huge this catastrophe has affected a very tiny town.”

One of the people the Democrats met with was Jon Harvey, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters, who pushed for a statewide incident management system that would bring together decision makers in one spot in a quicker amount of time.

“One of the issues that you have is the different jurisdictions that come in and the type of decisions they can make,” Harvey said.

Legislators and experts alike want to see a state of emergency declaration open up federal resources to the area to help residents with things like the cost of bottled water and longterm health monitoring. Melanie Houston, managing director of water policy for the Ohio Environmental Council, said the state should also own the authority the Ohio EPA and the US EPA have to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.

“They can do things like issue penalties and put companies like Norfolk Southern under orders,” Houston said, meaning mandatory measures that the companies must complete. “We want to see the Ohio EPA and the US EPA lean into those authorities.”

A disaster declaration is something Antonio said she knows DeWine is also looking into, and it “sounds like something that we may advocate for.”

This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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