The people affected by the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, do not qualify for direct financial aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But FEMA and other federal agencies have been assisting since the accident there in early February. Social media posts have misleadingly claimed that the federal government has denied aid.
Within three hours of when Norfolk Southern reported a train derailment in eastern Ohio on Feb. 3, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was on the scene.
The EPA is one of several federal agencies that has responded to the accident, in which 11 freight cars carrying toxic chemicals derailed and caught on fire. Three days after the crash, rail workers emptied about 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride and burned it in a “controlled release.” The crash and chemical release prompted an evacuation of nearby residents and necessitated ongoing monitoring of air and water quality.
The derailment was likely caused by an overheated wheel bearing, according to a preliminary report issued Feb. 23 by the National Transportation Safety Board, another federal agency involved in the aftermath of the crash near the village of East Palestine.
Despite the visible presence of federal workers there, partisan commentators and some politicians have suggested that President Joe Biden and his administration have denied aid. Many who are making the claim have compared the response in Ohio with Biden’s recent visit to Ukraine, during which he promised an additional $500 million in military aid.
“Nice to see our President visiting a foreign country and pledging $500M of taxpayer money before stepping foot into Ohio or sending a dollar,” claims one such post on Instagram.
Another post says, “OUTRAGE: As reports that FEMA has turned down a request for help after the releasing of DEADLY chemicals over East Palestine Ohio, President Biden announces humanitarian aid for Ukraine that will help provide social services and even pensions for Ukrainians.”
The humanitarian funding for Ukraine refers to a bill that passed in May with broad bipartisan support. We explained the details related to that aid, which includes funds for social services and pensions, in another article. It’s also worth noting that, while some Republicans have criticized Biden’s wartime visit, others — including Sen. Roger Wicker, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee — have praised the president for going to Ukraine and advocated providing even more military aid.
Former President Donald Trump, who has announced that he will run for office again in 2024, has been among the Republicans critical of the disaster response in Ohio. He appeared in East Palestine on Feb. 22, telling supporters, “Biden and FEMA said they would not send federal aid to East Palestine under any circumstance. They’re not going to send aid.”
It’s true that the Federal Emergency Management Agency hasn’t sent direct financial aid, because those affected by this type of accident don’t qualify. But it has provided other assistance.
Officials from FEMA and state agencies in Ohio had been in “constant contact regarding emergency operations in East Palestine,” according to a joint statement issued on Feb. 17 by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, and FEMA Regional Administrator Thomas C. Sivak.
And, as of Feb. 18, FEMA had sent a “senior response official along with a Regional Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT) to support ongoing operations, including incident coordination and ongoing assessments of potential long term recovery needs,” the statement said.
Railway Company Covering Most Costs So Far
The issue with FEMA assistance in East Palestine is a little more complicated than portrayed in social media posts.
It’s true that DeWine’s office and the Ohio Emergency Management Agency had been in touch with FEMA “pretty much since the start,” Daniel Tierney, a spokesman for DeWine, told us in a phone interview. But the aftermath of the crash isn’t the kind of disaster FEMA is best suited for.
While the situation in East Palestine is “very clearly a disaster, it’s a disaster that didn’t result in immediate property damage,” Tierney said, explaining that FEMA deals mostly with property damage that isn’t covered by insurance. The agency is most often associated with disasters following floods, hurricanes and other events that damage homes, businesses and infrastructure.
Additionally, Tierney said, since FEMA is publicly funded, it’s set up to be the payer of last resort. And, in the case of East Palestine, so far, Norfolk Southern has been footing the bill for much of the response.
We reached out to two of the federal agencies that have been on the scene from the beginning — the EPA and the NTSB — to find out how much they had spent so far. The EPA didn’t respond, and a spokeswoman for the NTSB said that she didn’t have that information.
“They’re paying for things, quite frankly, they should be paying for,” Tierney said of Norfolk Southern, which was operating the train that crashed. The company has provided bottled water, hotel expenses for those who were evacuated and per diem costs for those who don’t have access to their kitchens while they await water testing, he said. But, he said, that means that FEMA isn’t presently required.
FEMA had informally advised Ohio officials that the situation in East Palestine wouldn’t be eligible for financial assistance for those reasons, Tierney said. We reached out to FEMA for comment, but didn’t get a response.
FEMA Assistance Not Determined Yet
The potential for FEMA’s participation in the aftermath of the accident started getting mentioned widely in the second week after the crash, as public and media attention escalated.
On the Feb. 15 episode of Fox News’ “The Five,” Jeanine Pirro said, “They give all kinds of money for hurricanes and floods, why isn’t there federal money now for these people to move?”
Co-host Dana Perino responded, “Well, there should be, but Governor DeWine has to ask FEMA to come in and he hasn’t done it yet.”
The next day, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown wrote an open letter to DeWine requesting an emergency declaration, which would enable FEMA assistance. Media coverage of Brown’s letter brought even more attention to FEMA’s involvement.
That morning, though, DeWine had asked the White House to provide assistance with medical evaluations, and the Health and Human Services Department agreed to send doctors and nurses to staff a clinic in East Palestine.
The Feb. 16 announcement on that issue also said, “The DeWine Administration has 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. Governor DeWine will continue working with FEMA to determine what assistance can be provided.”
“We did not apply and get rejected,” Tierney said. “It just so happens the program everyone associates with disasters doesn’t apply,” he said, since FEMA deals largely with property damage.
But, on Feb. 17, DeWine’s office decided to request a disaster declaration in order to preserve the right for FEMA assistance if Norfolk Southern pulls out or other circumstances change, Tierney said.
“[T]o ensure that East Palestine can receive assistance from FEMA should this disaster qualify for FEMA aid in the future, Governor DeWine is preemptively filing a request with FEMA to preserve these rights,” the Ohio EMA announced in a statement that day.
So, it’s not true that the Biden administration has denied aid to those affected by the crash. As we said, the EPA, NTSB and HHS have all contributed resources in the aftermath of the crash, and FEMA has been in contact with emergency officials in Ohio as well as sending some workers to the scene.
Shortly after the crash, DeWine got a call from Biden, the governor said at a Feb. 14 press conference. “He told me that he wanted just to assure me that anything I needed from the federal government, they would supply, and told me to call him personally if there was anything that we needed at any point,” DeWine said.
Overall, Tierney said, the Republican governor has been trying to work collaboratively with the federal government on the response and “we’ve gotten support when it’s been asked for.”
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. East Palestine, Ohio Train Derailment Emergency Response. Updated 22 Feb 2023.
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Gore, D’Angelo. “Biden’s April 2022 Remark About Some Ukraine Aid Covering Pensions Is Not ‘Breaking’ News.” FactCheck.org. Updated 23 Feb 2023.
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