What Does FEMA’s Response Do for Ohio? Effort on Toxic Derailment Explained

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine will be receiving his requested assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help in the aftermath of a fiery train derailment that led to a chemical leak in eastern Ohio.

After a Norfolk Southern train transporting several hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month, residents of the surrounding village have been increasingly concerned for their health and safety, despite constant reassurance from state and federal agencies that air and water monitoring show the chemicals at safe detectable levels.

DeWine had previously asked the administration of President Joe Biden to provide on-the-ground aid in East Palestine among the concerns and cleanup efforts. On Thursday, the governor’s office said that Ohio had been “in daily contact with FEMA to discuss the need for federal support, however FEMA continues to tell Governor DeWine that Ohio is not eligible for assistance at this time.”

Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4, 2023. In the inset, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine speaks at a campaign stop on November 4, 2022, in Moraine, Ohio. DeWine announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be sending personnel to East Palestine to assist in the aftermath of the derailment.
Dustin Franz/AFP via Getty; Drew Angerer/Getty

The decision from FEMA also prompted a letter from the entire Ohio congressional delegation on Thursday, which urged the federal agency to provide assistance.

However, in a joint statement on Friday, DeWine and FEMA Regional Administrator Thomas C. Sivak said that the agency will “supplement federal efforts” in the cleanup of East Palestine by sending a senior response official as well as a regional Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT) to the derailment site on Saturday.

The federal officials will “support ongoing operations, including incident coordination and ongoing assessments of potential long term recovery needs” in East Palestine, read the release.

Why is FEMA Just Now Arriving?

FEMA is often deployed in response to an emergency or disaster declaration from a state government. As The Columbus Dispatch notes, disaster declarations are often in response to natural events like hurricanes or tornadoes, while emergency declarations can apply to any situation.

At this time, DeWine has still not made a disaster declaration in response to the derailment.

According to a report from The New York Times this week, DeWine’s office said it had been told Ohio didn’t qualify for FEMA support “in part” because Norfolk Southern was paying some of the cleanup expenses. FEMA also reportedly found that East Palestine didn’t qualify for assistance because of the lack of property damage after the derailment.

A White House official who spoke with Fox News Digital Friday morning also defended the decision to not send FEMA relief, saying that the agency wasn’t the “best equipped” to support the community.

“What East Palestine needs is much more expansive than what FEMA can provide,” the official stated. “FEMA is on the front lines when there is a hurricane or tornado. This situation is different.”

What Federal Assistance Is Already on the Ground?

Other federal agencies have already arrived at the scene of the derailment to assist state and local efforts, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which “arrived on site before dawn” the day after the train crash, according to a statement from the White House on Friday.

The EPA has continued to monitor air and water quality to ensure residents’ safety, the White House noted, and is also in charge of “coordinating the oversight of Norfolk Southern’s soil remediation of the derailment site.”

“The remediation includes testing of the soils within and immediately surrounding the impacted areas,” the statement said. “Results of the testing are evaluated by EPA and [Ohio] EPA to determine a strategy to ensure the site is cleaned up to meet federal and state regulations.”

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Department of Transportation also “arrived on site within hours of the derailment” in Ohio, the White House said. These agencies have been tasked with investigating the cause of the derailment as well as ensuring that Norfolk Southern is complying with federal safety regulations.

Medical Clinics Forthcoming With Help From the HHS

DeWine announced in an earlier statement Friday that his state will also be setting up medical clinics in East Palestine starting next week to “engage with residents, answer questions, evaluate any symptoms and provide medical expertise.”

“We know that the science says that East Palestine is safe, but we also know that residents are very worried,” DeWine said in the statement. “They are asking themselves, ‘Is my headache just a headache? Or is it a result of the chemical spill? Are other medical symptoms caused by the spill?'”

“Those are very legitimate questions and residents deserve answers,” he added.

In response to the governor’s requests, federal officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will be sent to support the clinics, which will be equipped with experts on the impacts of chemical exposures, DeWine’s office said.

DeWine also noted in his statement that the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services is working “to ensure that residents know what resources are available,” adding that the governor is aware of the “tremendous toll the train derailment has had on residents in East Palestine.”

Newsweek has reached out to Congressman Bill Johnson of Ohio, who represents East Palestine, for comment.

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