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The White House is defending the federal response to the Ohio train derailment

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The latest now in that freight train derailment in Ohio that caused a massive explosion and fire two weeks ago that released clouds of toxic fumes - the state of Ohio will open up a public health clinic in East Palestine Monday to assess residents who have concerns about their health. Meanwhile, the Biden administration defends the federal response to the train wreck while also calling for stronger regulations on trains that carry flammable and toxic chemicals. NPR's transportation correspondent David Schaper joins us. David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Let's begin, please, with the question of the federal response. State and local leaders think it just hasn't been there. Do we know why it's taken so long?

SCHAPER: Well, yeah. I mean, most of the criticism centers on the fact that there was only one cabinet-level official to come visit the site. That was EPA administrator Michael Regan. And it took almost two weeks for him to make that visit, which just happened the other day, Thursday. And no other top administration officials have been to the site. But what the White House says is that that's because they wanted to focus on the immediate response to what they said was quite literally a volatile situation.

Ohio's governor, Mike DeWine, also says he requested disaster assistance from FEMA, which he says was denied. But the White House says that's because this is not like a hurricane, tornado or another natural disaster where there's widespread property damage. Also, there is a party that is responsible, Norfolk Southern Railroad (ph), that has promised cleanup funding and other aid. Federal authorities say that FEMA has been in regular communication with state and local officials as have a host of other federal agencies. And state officials do confirm that.

SIMON: We've heard local residents complain about smoke, fumes. Smells, they say, still hang in the air. Anything being done about that?

SCHAPER: Yeah. I mean, some people are reporting symptoms like headaches and dizziness, irritated eyes and throats. And people there complain that they're really getting vague or incomplete information about what was in the air or what might be in the soil and water after this catastrophe. So now the Biden administration is going to be sending in teams of medical personnel and toxicologists from the departments of Health and Human Services and the CDC to conduct health assessments of people on site.

The EPA is still on site and has been from the beginning with - along with state officials conducting testing of the air, the water and the soil, looking for any dangerous levels of toxic chemicals. Ohio's governor, Mike DeWine, told residents yesterday that testing continues to show that drinking water is safe and not contaminated. He also says a plume of pollution that had been moving down the Ohio River, which is a source of drinking water for some 5 million people, has now dissipated and is diluted and not a threat.

SIMON: The derailment, of course, has raised questions about regulations on shipping volatile and toxic chemicals. The Trump administration repealed a measure to require a higher-level braking system for trains carrying these substances. What's the latest on that?

SCHAPER: Yeah, this braking system, it's called electronically controlled pneumatic brakes. It's known as ECP brakes. And what that does is on a freight train, it would apply the braking to all the rail cars simultaneously and stop the train much more quickly than the systems that are currently used. That rule was repealed by the Trump administration after heavy lobbying from the railroad industry, which had opposed it because they said it was too costly and there were some studies that questioned whether it really improved safety all that much.

But even if that rule hadn't been scrapped, it would not have covered this train because it didn't have enough cars with hazardous materials. That rule, when it was in place, only applied to trains with 20 or more such cars. But there is now talk of resurrecting the rule or having Congress enact a law requiring these kinds of brakes. Even some Republicans are joining in that call, Republicans who had previously opposed the regulation.

SIMON: David Schaper, NPR's transportation correspondent, thanks so much.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.