(WATCH) Disaster Support

When disaster strikes, government agencies typically rush in to help. Politicians pledging taxpayer money to make things right quickly so that lives and business can get back to normal. But whether it’s the destruction of a key bridge or a train derailment that upends a tiny Ohio town, vows of help may be no guarantee that everything and everyone will be made right. Scott Thuman reports.

The following is a transcript of a report from “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson.” Watch the video by clicking the link at the end of the page.

Police dispatch audio: “Hold all traffic on the Key Bridge; there’s a ship approaching that just lost their steering”

With just seconds to spare, police stop drivers from trying to cross the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, as a giant cargo ship that lost power topples the vital passageway, killing six workers on the bridge and effectively closing one of the busiest ports on the east coast.

Within hours, local, state, and federal agencies arrive on scene, and as daylight reveals the scope of the damage, and what it will take to rebuild and reopen.

The president instantly promising $60 million just to start.

President Biden: It’s my intention that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge.

A much different response than one seen at another infrastructure disaster last year, when 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in the tiny town of East Palestine, Ohio. Eleven tank cars ignited. 2,000 residents were evacuated. Rescue workers and state and federal government teams rushed to help.

Two days later, amid concern that the remaining tank cars could overheat and explode, the local fire chief made the call to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride.

We recently returned to East Palestine to see how the town has recovered from its toxic transportation disaster.

Misti Allison and her family left their home before the controlled chemical burn, but returned soon after, feeling relatively safe.

Misti Allison: I can vividly remember seeing a news article a couple of days after we came home, and the article said something along the lines of, “New chemicals were found on the train.” And we were told that it was safe to come home, that the air was fine, the water was fine, the soil was fine, everything was fine, and that we were allowed to come home.

Krissy Ferguson grew up in this house near the center of town, but when she visits her old home these days, it’s just to collect the mail. She now lives 10 miles away in Columbiana. She recently injured her neck in an auto accident.

Krissy Ferguson: We have the contaminated creek running underneath our home, and the water comes in daily through a floor drain. We still are not back in our home. There’s six in my family. I’ll never feel safe in this home again. In my opinion, it can not be cleaned. 

After the disaster, a parade of political leaders and officials and the governor trying to reassure about water quality.

Three weeks after the derailment, former President Trump came too.

Trump: We have told you loud and clear, you are not forgotten.

President Biden didn’t visit until a year later and declined to make a disaster declaration for the town.

And while his transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg was at the Baltimore bridge collapse within hours, it took nearly three weeks for him to visit East Palestine.

Buttigieg: “We’re going to be here day in, day out, year in, year out.

Ohio’s two senators, one from each party, took the lead in putting maximum pressure on the government and the railroad company.

Sen. Sherrod Brown: The company followed the Wall Street business model: boost profits by cutting costs, at all costs — the consequences for places like East Palestine be damned.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw visited the town several times and promised to pay for the clean-up, and for residents’ costs.

So far, the company says it has spent more than $1 billion on the clean-up. Most of that to deal with contamination.

Our videos from then and now show big changes, but on the town’s outskirts, crews are still hard at work.

Scott: The scene behind me here, drastically different than it was just a year ago. They’ve since removed about 176,000 tons of contaminated soil. That’s about 350 million pounds. A tremendous amount, and they say there’s still a lot of work to be done.

When we first met Kari Lentz, she and her family were living in a hotel well away from East Palestine. They returned to their home several months ago

Kari Lentz: It feels good to be back. It feels very good to be back and refreshing. It’s nice to see the neighbors.

In terms of her family’s health, Lentz says she’s most concerned about her son, who’s developed asthma. She monitors the interior air quality 24/7.

Scott: One of the things that we talked about last time was you said you didn’t really know if you could trust everything you were being told back then. 

Lentz: Yes. 

Scott: Do you still feel that way?

Lentz: It’s hard. There’s conflicting information. There are still neighbors that aren’t home and that have said that their homes are testing back contaminated. Do we fully trust what they’ve been telling us? The railroad, they’re here. They didn’t turn their backs on us. They’ve been doing the work. EPA has been here. They haven’t left us. But just something in the back of my mind, it’s just like, can it really truly be good and what they say?

That idea of not being able to trust what you’re being told is something we heard more than once in East Palestine. And recently, the biggest decision made at the time of the disaster has been called into question.

In March, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, said it turns out doing a controlled burn of chemicals wasn’t needed, because the tank cars were not getting dangerously hot, as had been thought. 

Jennifer Homendy: Over the course of 22 hours, that tank car was cooling. Not to mention the other four tank cars that were only between 64 and 69 degrees.

Scott: When you heard that, what’d you think?

Allison: It’s absolutely infuriating because if you look back at everything that’s happened, I think the cleanup would be done if the five tankers of vinyl chloride were not engulfed in flames.

The response here raises questions about how officials deal with transportation disasters that happen regularly.

On the rails, there have been several incidents since East Palestine, including one in Alabama, and another in Pennsylvania, both involving Norfolk Southern.

A derailment in Colorado involved BNSF —a different company — and one man died.

At the federal level, a new rail safety act was introduced after the East Palestine accident. It has bipartisan support, but Congress has yet to pass it.

Scott: Has this experience left you more or less confident in your government?

Lentz: Probably a little bit less. I mean, I feel bad saying that, but — because there were just big mistakes made. I wish it would’ve been handled better. So I have a little less confidence in their ability to handle those situations.

And for those who experienced the worst symptoms, or who still can’t come home, this disaster isn’t over.

Ferguson: No one deserves this. There are children that have nose bleeds daily. There’s seizures. There’s cancers that are already here. Can you 100% say that it’s from the derailment? They know that you can’t. Do people feel it is, in their hearts? Yeah.

Sharyl (on-camera): President Biden promised to have taxpayers pay the full cost of repairing this bridge or rebuilding it, almost immediately. Did he do the same thing in East Palestine?

Scott: No, he didn’t. And so far, the federal government has not said how much taxpayer money has been spent. The majority of it has been by the rail company, Norfolk Southern — more than $1 billion so far.

Sharyl: So how much will this pledge to rebuild that bridge cost taxpayers?

Scott: The bridge itself could be anywhere between $400 and $800 million. Although insurance will likely pay for a lot of that. The real cost is going to be lost wages and business from the port. That’s what taxpayers are going to be on the hook for.

Watch video here.

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