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Rep. Emilia Sykes

Ohio delegation renews push to aid East Palestine

Ohio lawmakers are upset over the attention given to rebuilding the collapsed Baltimore bridge, arguing there’s been little done to help the Buckeye State in the wake of last year’s disastrous East Palestine train derailment.

Rail safety bills in both the House and Senate are stalled more than a year after a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Now, as Congress shifts its focus to repairing the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, the Ohio delegation complains they’re being overlooked.

“Look how quickly they ran to aid the bridge in Baltimore,” Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) told us. “We can’t get any discussion on [East Palestine].”

Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Ohio) has been pushing the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to hold a hearing on East Palestine. The panel already held a hearing on the FSK Bridge disaster.

Bipartisan push: Sykes has led efforts to get a vote on her rail safety legislation, which she unveiled last year with former Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who represented East Palestine until retiring earlier this year. The bill has nine co-sponsors from the Ohio delegation.

Sykes said she’s had conversations with GOP state Sen. Michael Rulli, who is poised to succeed Johnson, about supporting their efforts.

“When the House refuses to even act like this is an issue, the question I will continue to ask my colleagues is ‘What about the people in Ohio?’” Sykes said.

We’ll note that there has yet to be any legislation passed by Congress to provide funds to rebuild the bridge either. Lawmakers are still waiting on official cost estimates to replace the span, which collapsed after it was struck by a cargo ship on March 26. Six people were killed in the incident.

Bicameral finger-pointing: Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio), who co-sponsored the RAIL Act, said it’s emblematic of this Congress that nothing is getting done outside of must-pass legislation and messaging bills.

“This Congress is a mess. We can’t even pass a rule off the floor and everything has to go by suspension,” Miller told us.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said the Senate should focus on passing its own rail safety bill and urged GOP Gov. Mike DeWine to do more. Kaptur added that Johnson’s absence has made it a burden, with East Palestine having no congressional representation.

“The two senators and the governor should take the lead on this and help Congresswoman Sykes,” Kaptur told us. “They’re without a congressman now.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has been pushing for a rail safety bill with Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), blamed the House for not doing more to push their leadership to get a bill on the floor, even while Senate GOP leadership stalls theirs.

“I’ve gone [to East Palestine] nine times,” Brown told us. “We’re working on a provision in the tax bill that has so far been blocked in the Senate, so I’m on it all the time. We need them to pass a rail safety bill in the House and they don’t seem much interested.”

The Wyden-Smith tax bill that Brown referenced would allow people affected by the East Palestine train derailment to avoid paying taxes on relief payments. That tax package is likely dead because of Senate GOP opposition, but there’s Republican support for the disaster tax relief.

The House passed a bill on May 21 to grant the disaster tax relief on its own, including for East Palestine.

Brown is also continuing to press the Biden administration to use its authority to grant disaster benefits for the derailment, arguing the Treasury Department and IRS could act so that Ohioans don’t have to pay taxes on payments from Norfolk Southern.

Biden’s response: The Biden administration settled with Norfolk Southern last week in an agreement that the company will pay $310 million to help with long-term health monitoring and environmental cleanup for East Palestine.

Sykes praised the settlement as “an important step forward” for the community, but she added that “there’s more work to be done,” including passing legislation on rail safety.

But other lawmakers also remain critical of the Biden administration’s overall response to the incident, including delayed site visits.

“It took Biden a year to even get there,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told us. “That to me was the frustrating part.”

— Mica Soellner

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