COLUMBUS, Ohio (WKBN) – It took six hours for crews on the ground in East Palestine to learn what was in the train that derailed on Feb. 3, later leaking chemicals into the area.

Representatives with the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) discussed the delay during a hearing before the Ohio Senate Select Committee on Rail Safety on Wednesday morning. Committee members are looking for ways to make the movement of hazardous chemicals on trains safer.

ODOT’s Deputy Director Thomas Corey said if they knew what was in the rail cars earlier, they would have been more proactive in their approach.

Thirty-eight rail cars derailed, causing a fire that damaged an additional 12 cars. There were 20 total hazardous material cars — 11 of which derailed, according to the NTSB.

ODOT Director Jack Marchbanks said they’ll be monitoring the health of their employees. So far, they haven’t shown any signs of illness due to the chemical exposure, but he said they will be following up.

It was the Committee on Rail Safety’s second meeting since the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine.

Local Senator Michael Rulli, R-33, serves as vice chair of the committee. He spoke passionately about local residents’ concerns during the committee’s last meeting on March 1.

Wednesday, he criticized the delayed information from Norfolk Southern, saying that had crews known the train cars were carrying hazardous materials, they could have better equipped themselves with the proper safety equipment.

Rulli criticized the lack of hazardous materials suits for first responders at the derailment site and what he called a “communication breakdown.”

“How do we fix the communication breakdown?” Rulli asked.

Rulli wants better tracking for trains carrying hazardous materials.

According to the last audit of Norfolk Southern by Federal Railroad Administration, the FRA noted some issues with the company’s past documentation of hazardous materials.

The audit states that although the train crew must have a document that reflects the current position of each rail car containing a hazardous material and also must note any changes in the placement of that rail car within the train, those weren’t always properly documented. A member of the crew must have a copy of the document for emergency response documentation, and the information must also be updated electronically, according to the audit.

“In the case of a train derailment, it is vital that either the carrier’s personnel or emergency
responders have an accurate location of railcars containing hazardous materials in the train.
Without accurate information, there is an increased likelihood for person(s) walking the train to
come in contact with a breached rail car containing a hazardous material,” the audit noted.

WKBN reached out to Norfolk Southern to ask whether the company had that document and what led to the delay in getting the information to first responders. A company official did not specifically respond to the question, saying they were unable to discuss it at length due to the ongoing NTSB investigation into the derailment. The official directed WKBN to its website of news updates.

Wednesday, Rulli also discussed legislation that would require railroad companies to alert the state if they are hauling hazardous materials through the state. He said he believes this may also help with any communication issues.

“We don’t even know these toxic cars are coming through our neighborhoods… We should know when it enters the Ohio line,” Rulli said.

Marchbanks talked about a program used by highways to transport oversized loads and suggested a similar program could be used to notify qualified personnel of incoming loads of toxic trains.

“‘The call ahead approach’ — we have the highway patrol notify fire chiefs along the route so they know what’s coming,” Marchbanks said.

Sen. Rulli also asked for more resources from the state on Wednesday, saying they can’t do any land transfers in the entire county because of testing currently underway, and septic and well systems must be signed off on to complete these transfers.

Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health, spoke to the committee as well. The department is conducting its own well tests separate from Norfolk Southern and comparing results. Dr. Vanderhoff said results of water and soil sampling are being posted on the state’s website and that so far, nothing of concern has been found.

Rulli called for well testing to be expanded.

“The mile radius isn’t big enough — we need to expand that. These people can’t afford to pay for the testing of their wells or septics. Some of these people make $20,000 a year,” Rulli said.

Health officials are using health questionnaires and a local clinic to monitor any potential health issues. Dr. Vanderhoff says they plan to expand the medical clinic in East Palestine.

“It’s very valuable as we monitor the community over time in terms of looking for patterns,” Dr. Vanderhoff said.

Various departments present at the committee meeting have been tasked with making further recommendations and will report back at a later date.