House Republicans will host hearings about the train derailment and subsequent chemical fallout in East Palestine, Ohio, including a possible field hearing so lawmakers can hear directly from residents of the small town, according to a Sunday report from Axios.
Officials previously executed a controlled burn of industrial chemicals on the vehicle to decrease the risk of an explosion; vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen used to manufacture PVC, was emitted from five train cars in the form of massive plumes of black smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Bodies such as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee are considering probes into the federal agencies charged with handling the incident.
House Oversight and Accountability Chair James Comer (R-KY) likewise sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last week requesting the senior official’s communications related to the incident. “The infrastructure failure that caused the derailment has led to an environmental disaster,” Comer and other lawmakers wrote. “As Secretary of Transportation, you must provide transparency to the American public on this matter.”
The calls for accountability follow House Republicans narrowly securing a majority in the lower chamber following last year’s midterm elections. Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee have already scheduled a hearing on the crisis. “Our focus will be to examine the local, state and federal response in the immediate aftermath of the train derailment and the ongoing efforts to clean up toxic chemicals in the surrounding environment,” a statement from lawmakers said.
Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH), whose district includes East Palestine, is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and previously invited Buttigieg to a town hall event with his constituents. “I’ll save a seat for you,” he told the former Democratic presidential contender on social media. “It’s past time you hear the concerns of residents.”
Authorities from the National Transportation Safety Bureau said in a preliminary report that a malfunctioning rail car axle was responsible for the disaster. Governor Mike DeWine (R-OH) said that the vehicle was “not considered a ‘high hazardous material’ train,” meaning that “the railroad was not required to notify anyone here in Ohio about what was in the railcars” traversing the state.
Buttigieg visited the train derailment site on Thursday, nearly three weeks after the incident and one day after a similar visit from former President Donald Trump. When pressed by a reporter on whether he should have visited the rust belt community sooner, Buttigieg said he was balancing his “desire to be involved and engaged and on the ground” with his “desire to follow the norm” and let the NTSB handle the crisis.
Residents of East Palestine could possibly be subject to a number of long-term health complications as a result of prolonged exposure to toxic substances, despite officials’ assurances that the air and water in the town are safe. Researchers from Texas A&M University and Carnegie Mellon University said on Friday that nine of the approximately 50 chemicals that the EPA said were present on the derailed train have higher concentrations than normal in East Palestine. They were especially concerned with above-normal levels of acrolein, a substance with a pungent odor that is “highly toxic” when inhaled, according to a report from the CDC.
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Biden administration officials have claimed that the derailment could have been prevented if Trump had not reversed a federal mandate about electronically controlled pneumatic train braking systems in 2018. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy, an appointee of the Biden administration, exhorted all who claim that the braking rule would have prevented the derailment to “stop spreading misinformation.” She clarified that the measure would have only applied to “high hazard flammable trains,” while the vehicle which derailed in East Palestine was classified as a “mixed freight train” with too few hazardous cars to meet the threshold for the regulation.