Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) has pledged that Norfolk Southern will be held accountable for the February 3 train derailment disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, to ensure the community is properly protected from the toxic chemicals released into the air and water.
“They’re the ones who created the problem,” said DeWine on February 7, four days after the accident. “It’s their liability. They’re the ones who ought to pay for it.”
But DeWine has refused to issue a disaster declaration that would send much-needed federal resources to East Palestine and draw attention to the Norfolk Southern accident. He has also failed to ensure that the railroad giant paid the price for two other derailments in his state earlier this year.
The governor’s failure to act raises questions about his management of the crisis — and the influence of his close ties to Norfolk Southern’s Ohio lobbying firm, which just so happens to be at the center of what federal prosecutors have called “likely the largest bribery, money laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio.”
DeWine’s office did not answer questions in response to inquiries from The Lever.
Norfolk Southern and its political action committee (PAC) have donated more than $20,000 directly to DeWine’s gubernatorial campaigns as well as his 2019 inauguration. The company has also delivered $165,000 to political committees supporting DeWine’s political career, including the Republican Governors Association and the Republican Attorneys General Association.
What’s more, DeWine has a very close relationship with Norfolk Southern’s lobbyists in Columbus.
Dan McCarthy, DeWine’s legislative director from January 2019 to September 2021, previously served as president of Norfolk Southern’s Ohio lobbying firm, The Success Group, from 1994 until 2020. The rail company has had The Success Group on retainer since at least 2009, according to Ohio lobbying records.
The Success Group has been exceptionally successful in blocking state legislation under DeWine’s watch that would have increased safety on the railroads, state records show. The firm’s lobbyists reported lobbying last year on a bill to mandate a minimum of two-person train crews on all trains. The legislation died at the end of the year when the previous legislative session came to a close.
The lobbyists have also been successful in greasing the wheels for a proposed $1.6 billion sale of the city of Cincinnati’s publicly owned railroad to Norfolk Southern. So far, DeWine has not raised concerns about the proposed privatization effort, which critics say could lead the city to lose out on perpetual lease payments.
Ohio state Sen. Bill Blessing, a Republican from Cincinnati, wrote in a recent op-ed, “Long-term, I believe that owning and leasing the railroad will provide better value for the city than the sale and what its proceeds may generate.”
During his time at The Success Group, McCarthy founded a dark money group, Partners for Progress, that ended up at the center of a bribery scandal involving Ohio’s main nuclear power operator, FirstEnergy.
FirstEnergy was criminally charged in 2020 for funneling tens of millions of dollars into dark money groups, including one called Partners for Progress. Some of these funds, federal prosecutors alleged, were bribes to get legislators to bail out FirstEnergy’s struggling nuclear power plants.
Partners for Progress funneled $300,000 to a dark money group backing DeWine’s 2018 campaign, and also put $100,000 into a failed effort to elect DeWine’s daughter Alice to a local prosecutor position in 2019.
When McCarthy stepped down from Partners for Progress to work for DeWine in 2019, his spot on the nonprofit’s board was filled by his Success Group colleague, McKenzie Davis.
The FirstEnergy case illustrates the close ties Norfolk Southern’s lobbyists enjoy with the governor’s office.
The FirstEnergy scandal, said Craig Holman, an ethics lobbyist at Public Citizen, “raises red flags around the entire exchange between the company, the lobbying firm, and DeWine. DeWine should make certain that Norfolk Southern pays for the derailment, make the transaction transparent so the public can understand what is going on — and DeWine should also be held accountable for his lackluster administration of the scandal.”
“Seek The Full Support Of The Federal Government”
DeWine recently highlighted the lack of federal aid going to the East Palestine disaster, tweeting last week that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “continues to advise that Ohio is not eligible for assistance at this time. I will continue working with FEMA to determine what assistance can be provided.”
He did not mention that the reason why East Palestine has so far received only limited support from the federal government is due to his failure to declare a disaster in the area.
Under federal law, there are two forms of disaster declarations: an “emergency declaration,” which authorizes up to $5 million in federal aid to the affected community, or a “major disaster declaration,” which “provides a wide range of federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure, including funds for both emergency and permanent work,” according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website. The President makes the decision to declare an emergency after receiving notice from a state’s governor.
Federal law states, "All requests for a declaration by the President that a major disaster exists shall be made by the governor of the affected state." DeWine must submit a request to the Biden administration by March 5 for the area to be eligible.
A disaster declaration would allow the federal government to provide additional resources to East Palestine — but it would also draw further attention and federal resources to aid the toxic chemical-stricken community, adding pressure on Norfolk Southern to both pay for the costs of the cleanup and to reimburse the government.
Last week, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) sent a letter to DeWine urging him to “officially declare a disaster and seek the full support of the federal government to bolster the state of Ohio’s ongoing clean-up efforts.”
DeWine has also refused to take other actions to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the derailment. For example, he could immediately endorse railroad safety legislation that has been languishing in the GOP-controlled state legislature that would mandate minimum two-person train crews and require better lighting in rail yards.
But DeWine has a history of going easy on Norfolk Southern. His administration has so far done nothing to compel the company to complete cleanups from two smaller Ohio derailments last fall, one in Sandusky in October and another between Steubenville and Toronto in November. The governor has sidestepped questions on the matter.
On February 14, DeWine called on Congress to expand the definition of a “high-hazard flammable train” (HHFT train), after reporting from The Lever revealed the derailed train in East Palestine was not covered by the current definition — even though the large amount of vinyl chloride on board necessitated local evacuations and was ultimately released and burned by crews.
“This train was not considered a high-hazardous material train… Therefore the railroad was not required to notify anyone here in Ohio what was in the rail cars coming to our state,” DeWine said in a press conference. “This is absurd.”