Former President Donald Trump is set to visit East Palestine, Ohio, on Wednesday, after criticizing the federal response to the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals. But while Trump’s visit is drawing more attention to the cleanup, it also highlights the disconnect between his promises to Rust Belt towns like East Palestine and his actual record in office.
Trump visits as a leading Republican contender to challenge President Biden in next year’s election, echoing his 2016 promises to restore white rural communities and postindustrial cities. While those areas are most likely to suffer from dangerous train derailments, his administration reduced rail safety protections. In 2015, the Obama administration instituted regulations mandating that trains carrying flammable crude oil use electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes. This was a looser regulation than the National Transportation Safety Board had advised, and the train that derailed in East Palestine wouldn’t have qualified because while it was carrying tankers of toxic chemicals, it didn’t have crude oil.
Despite calls for a wider range of cargo to fall under new regulation, Trump went the other way after taking office. His administration rolled back the rule on trains carrying flammable liquids, stating that the cost of the new braking systems outweighed the benefits of accident prevention. The Associated Press found that the Department of Transportation during the Trump administration underestimated the future damages of derailments during its analysis by more than $100 million.
“These ECP brakes are very important for oil trains,” Steven Ditmeyer, a rail safety expert and former official at the Federal Railroad Administration, told AP at the time. “It makes a great deal of sense: All the brakes get applied immediately, and there would be fewer cars in the pileup.”
Trump’s rollback came after extensive lobbying from the rail industry during and prior to his tenure, with Norfolk Southern saying it had “opposed additional speed limitations and requiring ECP brakes” in a 2015 lobbying disclosure. The rail industry spent more than $6 million on Republican campaigns in 2016, its biggest expenditure to any party in any cycle since at least 1990, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks the flow of money in U.S. politics. In 2019, Trump’s DOT moved to loosen restrictions on the transportation of natural gas by rail.
State officials ordered an evacuation in the area around the Feb. 3 derailment, and on Feb. 6 the company and officials burned off five tankers of vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. Two days later, residents were told it was safe to return to their homes, but people have continued to report illnesses and concerns over the safety of the air and water.
While the Environmental Protection Agency and the NTSB were on the scene early, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg didn’t issue a statement on the incident until 10 days after the derailment. Last week, EPA Director Michael Regan visited East Palestine and vowed to help the community for as long as needed and hold Norfolk Southern responsible for the costs of cleanup and restitution.
In a Fox News interview Monday evening, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said he felt Biden's visit to Ukraine was “the biggest slap in the face that tells you right now he doesn’t care about us,” adding, “He can send every agency he wants to, but I found that out this morning in one of the briefings that he was in the Ukraine giving millions of dollars away to people over there, not to us, and I’m furious.”
Asked during a Tuesday press conference whether he would welcome Biden to town, Conaway said he wouldn’t turn anyone away even though residents wanted things to get back to normal as quickly as possible. The mayor added that while he stood by his comments, he had been “very frustrated” when making them.
The Biden administration’s response became more aggressive on Tuesday, with the EPA announcing it was taking over the response to the wreck and creating a plan for Norfolk Southern, which has been accused of prioritizing speed of reopening the lines over safety in its initial cleanup. Additionally, the Department of Transportation released a set of proposals meant to increase rail safety, and Buttigieg told ABC News he planned to visit in the future and focus on “action on rail safety.”
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said Biden had contacted him in the days after the derailment, pledging any support the area needed. DeWine had initially declined to declare a disaster despite the urging of Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, saying it wouldn’t help with the FEMA response. On Friday, DeWine and FEMA announced in a joint statement that there would be additional federal response teams coming to the area. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Ohio Department of Health opened a clinic in East Palestine on Tuesday, more than two weeks after the crash.
Trump claimed credit for the dispatch in a post to his Truth Social platform last week: “Biden and FEMA said they would not be sending federal aid to East Palestine. As soon as I announced that I’m going, he announced a team will go. Hopefully he will also be there. This is good news because we got them to ‘move.’ The people of East Palestine need help. I'll see you on Wednesday!”
The East Palestine City School District announced Monday that it would be closed for Trump’s visit due to “heightened security measures” and “significant number of street closures.” Trump won 71% of the vote in Columbiana County, where East Palestine is located, in 2020. He won 59% of the vote in neighboring Beaver County, Pa. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich rescheduled a planned town hall to Friday in order to avoid conflicting with what she referred to as “the circus coming to town.”
“Please understand that Superman isn’t coming to make everything all better,” Brockovich wrote last week on Twitter. “This will likely get worse before they get better. But [East Palestine,] you are not alone and we aren’t going anywhere.”