WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Thursday, March 9, 2023, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing to address the environmental and public health threats from the Norfolk Southern train derailment and chemical release in East Palestine, Ohio.
Below is the opening statement of Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.), as prepared for delivery:
“As we know, last month, news broke about an environmental disaster caused by a Norfolk Southern train derailment near East Palestine, Ohio—less than a mile from the Pennsylvania border. We are here today to discuss that train derailment and subsequent hazardous chemical release, which led to a controlled burn and the mandatory evacuation of some 2,000 people. This tragic incident is a reminder of the importance of following the Golden Rule and treating others the way we would like to be treated.
“Today’s hearing is an opportunity to put ourselves in the shoes of those impacted by this disaster, examine the immediate response, and ensure long-term accountability for the cleanup efforts. It’s our responsibility in Congress to answer: What went wrong? What do we need to do to fix it? What can we do to make sure it does not happen again?
“Every so often, an environmental disaster in our country underscores our responsibility to protect public health and our environment. In 1969, I recall seeing news coverage of a train spark that ignited the polluted Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio.
“As our nation watched a river engulfed in flames, it served as a wake-up call to better protect communities from hazardous substances and take responsibility for cleaning up environmental disasters. This movement helped lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had broad bipartisan support.
“My hope is that in the aftermath of the disaster in East Palestine, we can come together once again to identify solutions that will protect communities, improve safety and restore trust.
“We must work together—with our colleagues on other relevant House and Senate committees—to strengthen our nation’s rail safety regulations, ensure compliance with them and prevent future incidents like this one from happening.
“We also need to make sure that the impacted communities receive the resources and support they need. Our existing laws have allowed EPA to identify Norfolk Southern as a responsible party and begin to hold the corporation responsible for the costs of the emergency response, as well as for the long-term remediation of the area. We want to hear from our witnesses today whether Norfolk Southern is meeting its obligations, which I believe is a moral obligation.
“In addition, we should note that responding to this disaster is a shared responsibility between different levels of government and Norfolk Southern. And, it is imperative for us to ensure that the agencies tasked with responding to disasters like this have the necessary resources to ensure the safety of the air that people breathe, the water they drink and the soil they use to grow crops.
“It’s worth noting that the Biden administration has been on the ground from day one. As we will hear today, the EPA, working alongside state and local partners, arrived in East Palestine within hours after the derailment and has maintained a presence ever since. In fact, Administrator Regan has visited the area three times already.
“In the wake of the release of chemicals, these government entities have worked tirelessly to install air and groundwater monitoring systems, as well as sample the water and air for toxics and oversee the removal of contaminated soil.
“Norfolk Southern appears to have cooperated with these orders and has agreed to pay for the environmental cleanup resulting from the derailment. However, the ultimate costs may exceed the immediate cleanup needs. Moreover, an apparent lack of transparency on the part of Norfolk Southern, at least in the early days of the response, has left some members of the community battling with mistrust and looking for answers.
“We’re told that the company’s failure to communicate directly includes information given to some first responders, who were under the impression that only one car would be vented and burned, rather than five. This miscommunication left first responders scrambling to ensure the public safety requirements of a much larger plume.
“We have also heard from some residents, who were told it was safe to return to their homes, but are still experiencing ongoing health problems. Other concerns remain, such as loss of property values and the long-term impacts on our most vulnerable citizens, including children and the elderly.
“As I said earlier, today presents us with the opportunity to learn from this experience, address misinformation, and gain a better understanding of the long-term plan to protect public health and address the environmental impacts of this disaster.
“Just as we witnessed an earlier environmental disaster in Ohio fifty-four years ago, a new generation of Americans is now waiting to see how their government responds today and in the days to come. This incident may well prove to be a defining moment in their lives.
“Let’s do what’s right not only for the people of East Palestine but for everyone who believes that those who transport potentially dangerous chemicals must take the necessary steps to protect our people and our one and only planet.”