COLUMBUS, Ohio (WKBN) — Local Sen. Michael Rulli (R-Salem) spoke passionately about the train derailment in East Palestine during the Senate’s Select Committee on Rail Safety hearing on Wednesday. The committee pushed for some answers and updates from state officials.
Chaired by Rulli and Sen. Bill Reineke (R-Tiffin), the committee took testimony and questioned state agency officials and experts working on the scene in East Palestine.
Rulli said he lives near “ground zero” of the derailment site. He relayed the concerns of locals, including questions from local farmers, who asked whether they should be worried about planting crops.
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Anne Vogel asked for patience and said part of Norfolk Southern’s work plan is for soil testing, which will be ongoing.
She said the experts who have studied this have determined that there were no contaminants in the air that would come back down to the soil.
Vogel said cleanup work is going smoothly, and the next steps are that Norfolk Southern will remove the train tracks and remove the contaminated soil from underneath the tracks. So far, the soil from the center of the tracks has been removed and hauled away.
“This problem is so deep and is going to go for awhile — and the most exciting thing I’ve heard you guys say today is, you’re in this for the long-haul,” Rulli said.
Rulli also said he has concerns about the communities surrounding East Palestine and about people’s mental health — as well as the health of children in the area.
“Don’t forget Negley, and don’t forget Crestview. Don’t forget Salem, don’t forget Leetonia, don’t forget Columbiana proper. This is my home, this is where I live,” Rulli said. “The anxiety level of my district is at a fever-pitch.”
He said he would like to get a new fire station built and remove the one that was close to the derailment site, as he’s been talking over plans with East Palestine fire Chief Keith Drabick. Rulli added that they want to build a fire academy to teach firefighters how to put out chemical fires.
“There’s only one in Colorado that actually teaches firefighters how to put out a chemical fire,” he said.
Rulli also explained the urgency that led to the controlled release of chemicals. He said as the temperature started spiking erratically in the rail cars damaged in the derailment, experts knew that they had to take action. Those rail cars had been hauling volatile chemicals.
“When we did the controlled burn, there was really not a choice, and if you were there, if the public was there to watch it… The governor, our governor on his phone had Gov. Shapiro. So there’s only 50 states and you have two governors making the decision together to do that controlled burn. Was it perfect? No, it wasn’t perfect, but the temperature could have spiked immediately and we’d have a half hour to an hour to evacuate the town and then there’s no more town. So I don’t know if you thought that that was an important part to add to that — the urgency of that decision-making because you hear so many different stories about this story of what happened and could you have done things different. In my heart of heart, I don’t think we could have done anything different,” Rulli said.
The senator added that there’s no way for the community to go back to normal immediately, but with help from the Ohio EPA, they have a chance to make the area better than before.
“We all owe it to the citizens of East Palestine — not only to get them back where they were, but to improve their village,” said Ohio EPA assistant director Mark Johnson.
Senate President Matt Huffman said the committee’s mission is to understand what happened and what the Ohio General Assembly can do to help East Palestine recover.
The committee plans to meet again next week.
Also serving on the committee is Senate Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Stephanie Kunze (R-Dublin), Sen. Frank Hoagland (R-Mingo Junction), Sen. Kristina Roegner (R-Hudson), Sen. Al Landis (R-Dover), Sen. Louis W. Blessing, III (R-Colerain Township), Ranking Member Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood), Sen. Paula Hicks-Hudson (D-Toledo) and Sen. Catherine Ingram (D-Toledo).
You can watch the full committee hearing in the video above.