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Is Cleveland prepared for railway disasters? City officials discuss after East Palestine derailment

Aerial view of derailed trains lying in dirt beside railroad tracks in East Palestine, Ohio. An excavator and other trucks are parked nearby.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Derailed Norfolk Southern train cars lie in the dirt beside the railroad tracks in East Palestine on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.

Cleveland City Council is examining local rail safety and emergency preparedness following last month’s toxic train derailment in East Palestine.

In a special hearing Tuesday, council members and public safety officials did not mince words, calling railway companies “arrogant” and “negligent.”

“I cannot think of a worse corporate partner than the railroads,” said Ward 17 Councilmember Charles Slife.

The meeting comes one day after council passed a resolution urging Congress to pass the bipartisan Railway Safety Act, offered by Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance. The bill would strengthen regulations and protections for citizens in the event of a train derailment.

While safety was top of mind, council members repeatedly attacked railroad companies’ negligent property management in their Cleveland neighborhoods. Those companies are responsible for dilapidated bridges, cracked asphalt surrounding tracks and overgrown grass, council members contended.

Ward 7 Councilmember Mike Polensek urged Law Director Mark Griffin to bring railroad companies like Norfolk Southern and CSX to court.

“The administration has got to take an active role against them,” he said. “They’re not being held accountable. And until that day comes, they’re not going to respect us and their lobbyists in Columbus are going to thumb their noses at us.”

Griffin said he will take “aggressive action” to explore how the city’s nuisance laws could put legal pressure on railroad companies.

“The rail lines have gotten away with a lot for a long time,” Council President Blaine Griffin said.

It’s not the first time the city has gone toe-to-toe with rail companies: In 2020, council passed a resolution condemning Norfolk Southern for routing trains carrying highly flammable materials through the city without public notice.

The meeting, chaired by Ward 15 Councilmember Jenny Spencer, also took a look at the emergency and communications strategies that are in place if a similar event were to occur in Cleveland. The city was along the route of the train carrying hazardous materials before derailing in East Palestine.

Given Cleveland’s dense population, evacuation efforts would prove much more challenging than in East Palestine.

But Cleveland has more emergency service resources, Cleveland Fire Chief Anthony Luke assured council members. More firefighters would be available to be on the scene immediately, with the ability to call in state resources if need be.

Until relinquished authority to another state or federal agency, Luke said he would be in charge in an emergency situation like a train derailment.

The city updates its Emergency Operation Plan every four years, city officials said.

Citizens can be alerted and updated about citywide emergencies by signing up for calls, texts and emails on the city's website by clicking “Code Red” and filling out personal details. About 250,000 residents and businesses have already opted in.

Council members and public safety officials noted, however, that there is very little the city can legally regulate to prevent these disasters, emphasizing the importance of more state and federal legislation.

Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration and City Council plan to submit a letter laying out problems to Norfolk Southern and requesting a point of contact. Norfolk Southern was invited to the meeting, but declined to send a representative.

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.