By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday issued an executive order directing the appointment of a disaster recovery coordinator for the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, but did not declare a major disaster.
The White House said Wednesday the federal coordinator will be named within five days and will “conduct a comprehensive assessment of any unmet needs that are not addressed by Norfolk Southern and would qualify for federal assistance.”
The train caught fire and released over a million gallons of hazardous materials and pollutants sparking concerns about rail safety in the United States and calls for reforms in Congress.
The U.S. Justice Department and state of Ohio have both sued Norfolk Southern seeking to recoup costs tied to the accident.
Norfolk Southern said Wednesday it “has committed to making it right in East Palestine and covering all costs associated with the clean-up.” The company has so far booked charges of $803 million for the derailment.
The White House said Ohio’s request for a major disaster declaration remains open and could be approved at a later date.
A spokesman for Ohio Governor Mike DeWine declined immediate comment, saying officials were reviewing Biden’s order.
Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown called Biden’s order “an overdue but welcomed step.”
Last month, the Transportation Department’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) said Norfolk Southern needs “significant improvements” in its safety culture and disclosed the agency is considering enforcement actions against the railroad on a number of issues, including track maintenance, inspection, repair practices and hours of service regulations.
In May, a U.S. Senate panel approved bipartisan rail safety legislation that tightens rules on trains carrying explosive substances like the Norfolk Southern-operated train, but further action has stalled.
Norfolk Southern said Monday it launched an interim program to compensate homeowners around East Palestine who have sold properties at reduced values following the derailment. The railroad has also said it supports addressing long-term health risks through a long-term medical compensation fund and a program to help protect East Palestine drinking water.
A U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on the aftermath of the derailment is set for Friday in East Palestine that will include Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw.
(Reporting by David Shepardson and Kanishka Singh in WashingtonEditing by Chris Reese and Michael Perry)
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