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Committee passes report on rail safety months after East Palestine train derailment

Months after the disaster in East Palestine, residents say it’s still just as terrifying as it was the weekend it happened.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — A 132-page report was accepted and adopted by the state’s Senate Select Committee on Rail Safety on Wednesday. It proposed changes that can be done at the state level to make the state’s railways safer.  

The report is the result of months of meetings and testimony following the train derailment in East Palestine in February. Wednesday’s hearing was brief, lasting only about 20 minutes, as committee members made two amendments to the report and adopted it.  

The report doesn’t make any changes to laws or regulations. It does contain a page of recommendations that could be acted upon at the state level. 

"As time goes on, people are going to forget about East Palestine and I don't ever want that to happen,” said Senator Michael Rulli, a Republican representing District 33. "Things have changed a lot there. When you're down at ground zero, all the tracks have been ripped out so the smell is gone and we're starting to get back to normal. The anxiety is still there, especially with the farmers. That's where we're seeing the real concern." 

An amendment to the report added Wednesday by Democrat Senator Paula Hicks-Hudson would create a pathway for a yearly report on agriculture in East Palestine. It also requires the state to monitor ground chemicals for at least the next 20 years.  

"It's about what you can do. That's why, we as legislators, we need to make sure we push forward on those things we can and not use the federal government as a shield to say, 'We can't do anything because they've already legislated in that area,'" said Senator Hicks-Hudson, District 11 Democrat. 

“When these farmers, and you're looking at 10, 12, 14 years out and these farmers want to have a testing, because this testing is very important to local farmers. People want some kind of warranty or guarantee that the product they're buying from that area is safe. Without that testing, we don't have that," said Senator Rulli. 

As for people still living in East Palestine, they say it’s still just as terrifying as it was the weekend it happened.  

Jess Conard lives in East Palestine and has been fighting for her community since the derailment. She said she’s grateful for the work of the committee, but more need to be done in Washington.  

"We're starting to really push for that emergency declaration. We know those cancer clusters are coming and that in 20 years those illnesses do not bankrupt us,” said Conard.  

She wants a disaster declaration to free up money on the federal level to aid in their recovery.  

"Norfolk Southern is not an emergency management agency and the EPA has exceeded their capabilities in East Palestine, so what we really need is to meet those individual needs,” she said.  

On the federal level, Senators JD Vance and Sherrod Brown continue to push President Joe Biden for a disaster declaration for the East Palestine region.  

The two also have bipartisan legislation, the Railway Safety Act of 2023, working its way through the government. It would strengthen regulations on railways and rail companies.  

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