Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has asked President Joe Biden to issue a Major Presidential Disaster Declaration relating to the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
DeWine sent the letter on July 5, the deadline set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency following a previous extension request.
The derailment took place on Feb. 3, leading to a burnoff of five rail cars of vinyl chloride monomer, a feedstock used to make PVC resin. Smoke and odors related to the burnoff have led to health problems for some area residents.
"The possibility remains that the voluntary support provided by Norfolk Southern could at some point in the future cease," DeWine said in a three-page letter to Biden. "This declaration is needed to ensure that the state and federal government use all resources available to step in and provide the community with needed assistance."
In a news release, state officials said that the Ohio Emergency Management Agency has maintained frequent contact with FEMA since the derailment. FEMA has consistently advised that aid would likely not be granted because of no unmet needs reported to the state, officials said.
"The voluntary actions of Norfolk Southern have to date reimbursed citizens and state and local governments for costs associated with damage incurred due to the train derailment," they added. "However, concern remains that FEMA assistance would be needed if the voluntary aid from Norfolk Southern ceases. Concern also remains regarding ongoing costs that might develop but have yet to be identified."
Officials also said that, because of "the unique nature" of the incident, the state is still working to identify current needs and evaluate the future impacts this disaster will have on individuals and the community.
"In addition to the physical and mental health impacts, there have been economic impacts," DeWine said in the letter. "Homeowners and business have seen property value decline and loss of business as people are hesitant to come into the community."
DeWine added that NS could stop assistance if it's found not to be liable for damages or if new leadership takes over management of the railroad. "Should these events or others occur, it will be the responsibility of the state and local government to step in and provide aid," he said.
In mid-June, several East Palestine residents interrupted an Ohio budget meeting at the Capitol building in Columbus. Jessica Conard, one of the residents involved, said they did so to draw attention to inaction on the part of the railroad and to urge DeWine to ask for the emergency declaration, which she said would open up more resources to the community.
Both the state and federal governments have filed lawsuits against NS for damages related to the derailment. An spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board told Plastics News that its investigation of the accident could take 12-24 months to complete.
A preliminary report from NTSB in late February cited an overheated wheel bearing as the cause of the derailment. The train was traveling at 47 mph at the time of the derailment, 3 mph below the speed limit for that type of train.
Officials with materials maker Oxy Vinyls LP — owner of the VCM being transported — and NS were questioned at a two-day government hearing June 22-23 at East Palestine High School. Officials gave differing views of the decision to burn off the VCM.
Oxy officials said they advised NS officials that a polymerization reaction, which could have caused an explosion, was not happening. NS officials countered that they made the decision to burn off the VCM because they observed what they believed to be multiple signs of polymerization.
Since the derailment, NS has spent more than $60 million on assistance to East Palestine, the company said. The firm is doing ongoing testing of air, water and soil in the area. Large amounts of contaminated water and soil also have been removed.