One year after a derailed freight train sparked a fire which spewed a toxic chemical cloud over East Palestine, Ohio, President Joe Biden is set to visit the town to mark the one-year anniversary of the disaster and tout his administration’s efforts to clean up the effects and prevent similar derailments.
A White House official said Mr Biden will visit East Palestine in February “to meet with residents impacted by the Norfolk Southern train derailment and assess the progress that his Administration has helped deliver in coordination with state and local leaders to protect the community and hold Norfolk Southern accountable”.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at a press briefing on Wednesday that no date had been set for Mr Biden to visit, and that the president was doing so at the request of the town’s mayor.
“The mayor and community leaders invited the President to meet with East Palestinian residents and also assess the recovery progress that’s been going on for some time ... and so the President had always said that he would go when it is most helpful to the community,” she said. “We felt that the time was right ... we’re working with the mayor elected officials to find the exact time and day to go in February”.
The White House has repeatedly stressed that Mr Biden had acted within hours of the derailment to “mobilise a comprehensive, whole-of-government response to support the people of East Palestine, Ohio, and nearby affected communities” after the 3 February 2023 wreck, which caused 38 cars of the 150-car train that was en route from Madison, Illinois to Conway, Pennsylvania to jump the track.
Following the derailment, a fire began, and because the train was carrying flammable materials including toxic vinyl chloride, authorities started a controlled burn of some of the spilled material rather than risk what would have been a catastrophic explosion.
Railroad and emergency personnel released cargo from five tanker trucks, diverted the liquid to a trench, and set it ablaze. In the wake of the derailment and controlled burn, Environmental Protection Agency officials said vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ethers were released into the air, soil and water, though the agency later said it had not detected such chemicals at “levels of concern” several days after the incident.
At the time, Mr Biden said he would not visit the disaster site until an appropriate time, citing the logistical hurdles in arranging presidential travel and the need to prioritise resources for the disaster response.
Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, have used Mr Biden’s failure to visit East Palestine as a cudgel to attack the president with claims that he is less interested in the concerns of rural Americans than those of foreigners, citing his strong support for Ukraine and Israel.
In his defence, White House officials have touted the Biden administration’s response efforts, which began within hours of the derailment when Mr Biden ordered the EPA to deploy “ a team of trained emergency response personnel to East Palestine to aid state and local emergency and environmental response efforts”.
A White House official also recalled how Mr Biden ordered the Department of Transportation to the site “within hours to support the National Transportation Safety Board in their independent investigation of the derailment” and how Health and Human Services officials had “worked alongside state and local health departments to conduct public health testing and offer technical assistance”.
“Throughout the response and recovery process, the Administration has continued to closely coordinate with the Ohio Governor, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health and local partners, including the Village of East Palestine and Columbiana County,” the official said.
“As President Biden has said from the beginning, the Administration will continue to support the people of East Palestine and other affected communities for as long as it takes, including by using every available tool to hold Norfolk Southern accountable. President Biden pledged he would make Norfolk Southern clean up its mess in East Palestine, and his Administration is delivering”.