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When disasters happen, local and state officials often turn to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for aid. So, after a freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, alarming the local community, many people questioned why FEMA had yet to step in.
Misleading social media claims have sowed confusion about the status of federal aid for East Palestine.
Some Twitter users blamed Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, for not making a declaration that would trigger federal aid. Other social media posts pointed fingers at President Joe Biden, claiming he had denied Ohio’s requests for federal aid.
The Biden administration has offered federal assistance to both DeWine and Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, whose state was also affected by the derailment. Federal agencies have been supporting recovery and cleanup efforts in East Palestine since the Feb. 3 derailment.
FEMA isn’t providing East Palestine disaster relief funds, but the agency sent staff to help local and state officials assess potential long-term recovery needs. FEMA sent a Regional Incident Management Assistance Team. These units generally help with the initial assessment, coordination and response following a disaster.
Ohio isn’t eligible for federal relief funds because the incident did not meet the "major disaster" definition under federal law.
Under the 1988 Stafford Act, a "major disaster" is defined as any natural catastrophe in the country that causes damage of such severity that the president determines it is beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments to respond.
The train derailment also did not cause any property damage, which is part of the criteria for FEMA disaster relief.
Although the aftermath of the train derailment "certainly has been a disaster," DeWine said Feb. 17, it does not meet this legal definition.
DeWine said FEMA is "most typically involved with disasters where there is tremendous home or property damage such as tornadoes, flooding and hurricanes."
DeWine said he had been in contact with FEMA since the train derailed and that he preemptively filed a request with FEMA "to preserve our rights" in the event East Palestine becomes eligible for aid in the future.
DeWine said that Norfolk Southern Railway Co., a Norfolk Southern Corp. subsidiary and the train’s operating company, is responsible for the incident, and it should continue to pay for damages caused by the derailment.
FEMA did not respond to PolitiFact’s request for additional information.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a Feb. 16 press briefing that the needs in East Palestine are "much more expansive than what FEMA can meet."
Since Feb. 4, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been working with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to monitor air and water quality, screen homes in East Palestine for contaminants and coordinate with Norfolk Southern on cleanup efforts.
Across the border in Pennsylvania, the EPA is also working with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to test air and water in the affected communities.
The EPA said Feb. 21 that it would take control of the response to the train derailment and ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up the contamination. The railway company will be responsible for covering all costs associated with this work.
The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent government agency that investigates transportation accidents, is leading the investigation into what caused the train derailment, with the U.S. Department of Transportation's support.
After officials conducted a controlled burn of chemicals spilled by the train derailment, East Palestine residents have reported skin irritations, respiratory problems and other health issues.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent medical personnel, including toxicologists, to East Palestine to help the Ohio Department of Health operate a clinic. Residents can go to the clinic for health evaluations and to ask medical questions related to the train derailment.
Federal Emergency Management Agency, "Joint Statement from Ohio Governor DeWine and FEMA Regional Administrator Sivak," Feb. 17, 2023
White House, "FACT SHEET: Biden-Harris Administration Deploys Additional Federal Resources to East Palestine, Ohio," Feb. 17, 2023
Federal Emergency Management Agency, "How a Disaster Gets Declared," Jan. 4, 2022
Federal Emergency Management Agency, "Stafford Act," accessed Feb. 21, 2023
Federal Emergency Management Agency, "Eligibility Criteria for FEMA Assistance," Nov. 28, 2022
White House, "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre," Feb. 16, 2023
Ohio Department of Health, "Ohio Department of Health to open clinic in East Palestine," Feb. 19, 2023
The Ohio Channel, "Governor Mike DeWine - Update on East Palestine Train Derailment," Feb. 17, 2023
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "EPA Orders Norfolk Southern to Conduct All Cleanup Actions Associated with the East Palestine Train Derailment," Feb. 21, 2023
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, "Governor Shapiro Visits East Palestine and Beaver County to Give Update and Hear More from Residents After Norfolk Southern Train Derailment," Feb. 21, 2023
Tweet, Feb. 16, 2023
Tweet, Feb. 19, 2023
Tweet, Feb. 18, 2023
Tweet, Feb. 17, 2023
Instagram post, Feb. 17, 2023
Donald Trump, Truth Social post, Feb. 18, 2023
The Washington Post, "EPA to take control of Ohio derailment response," Feb. 21, 2023
Columbus Dispatch, "No disaster declaration for East Palestine train derailment but FEMA sends team to Ohio," Feb. 17, 2023
PolitiFact, "The Ohio train derailment: What we know about health, environmental concerns," Feb. 15, 2023
PolitiFact, "Ohio derailment is just the latest serious industrial accident in the U.S.," Feb. 15, 2023
PolitiFact, "Ask PolitiFact: We’ve seen reports of three train derailments this month. Is this normal?," Feb. 16, 2023
PolitiFact, "Obama-era safety rule for high-hazard cargo trains was repealed under Trump," Feb. 17, 2023