(EAST PALESTINE, Ohio) — The politics around the Feb. 3 derailment of the Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border intensified this week with attention only growing on East Palestine from local, state and national leaders, among others.
Former President Donald Trump is slated to visit the area on Wednesday as East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway lambasted President Joe Biden for a surprise trip to Ukraine on Monday instead of the Ohio village — a stop Conaway called the “biggest slap in the face” as his community reels from the fiery crash more than two weeks ago.
Conaway later said he would welcome Biden.
“You have a president going to Ukraine and you have people in Ohio that are in desperate need of help,” Trump said on Monday during a speech in West Palm Beach, Florida, days after he announced his upcoming trip to the site.
“The people of East Palestine need help. I’ll see you on Wednesday!” Trump wrote on in a statement on Saturday.
It remains unclear where he will appear in the area or with whom and what he will say.
In the days following the crash of about 50 cars of a freight train carrying hazardous materials including vinyl chloride, a highly volatile colorless gas produced for commercial uses, uproar has ensued from Republicans and some Democrats at the response, particularly from the Biden administration — who has repeatedly sought to highlight an array of steps being taken.
Conservative media personalities have been quick to try and link the absence of Biden administration representatives in the area — not including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan — to their claim that the president wants to neglect the area because of its politics, which Democrats have rejected.
“East Palestine is a poor, white town that voted for Trump. So honestly, who cares? No one in the Biden administration did care and that’s an atrocity,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said recently.
The White House has said they would dispatch Federal Emergency Management Agency relief to East Palestine on Saturday, despite acknowledgement even from Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, that the state did not expect help from the agency that is “most typically involved with disasters where there is tremendous home or property damage,” like fallout from hurricanes or floods.
Trump quickly tried to take credit for the action: “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,"” Trump said on social media.
Democrats, however, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, sought to place some blame on Trump for the train derailment because his administration withdrew regulations connected to “high hazard” trains, along with other EPA regulations related to harmful toxins and emissions.
The EPA administrator, Regan, came to East Palestine on Thursday, as the first Biden administration agency head to visit. Regan visited again on Tuesday — a day ahead of Trump’s scheduled trip — and reiterated that the administration has employed the EPA and Department of Transportation personnel on the ground since “day one” to support state and local emergency and environmental response efforts.
Biden himself has said little on the topic, though the White House has said he’s offered federal assistance to Ohio Gov. DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro. On Tuesday after a high-profile speech in Ukraine, Biden provided his first direct update to his involvement in East Palestine, tweeting that he had just spoken with DeWine, Shapiro, Brown, U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, Mayor Conaway and Regan about the ongoing crisis.
“We’ll continue to hold rail companies accountable when they fail to put safety first. But first, we’ve got Norfolk Southern’s mess to clean. I want affected residents to know that we’ve got your back. And as I said to your govs, they’ll have every resource that they need,” Biden said.
In a series of tweets, Biden reiterated an earlier announcement from the EPA which ordered Norfolk Southern, to pay for the clean-up and disposal of hazardous materials related to the derailment.
“This is common sense. This is their mess. They should clean it up,” Biden said, before noting that his administration were on the ground working in “lockstep” with state and local officials just “hours” after the trail derailed.
Biden also echoed Buttigieg’s plea for rail companies and lawmakers to embrace safety regulations– improvements that have been resisted, according to the transportation secretary. A day before Trump’s visit to East Palestine, Biden also noted the EPA and train related regulation rollbacks made by his predecessor’s administration.
“The @USDOT has made clear to rail companies that their pattern of resisting safety regulations has got to change. Congress should join us in implementing rail safety measures,” Biden said on Twitter. “For years, elected officials – including the last admin – have limited our ability to implement and strengthen rail safety measures. Heck, many of the elected officials pointing fingers right now want to dismantle the EPA – the agency that is making sure this clean up happens.”
While uneasiness and concern remains among community members, state and local leaders joined together on during a press conference in East Palestine on Tuesday to offer their reassurances.
DeWine, Shapiro, Johnson, Conaway and Regan touted their ability to put partisan politics aside and work together in holding Norfolk Southern accountable, they said, for environmental and safety violations. (The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating what led to the derailment.)
“We recognize that we have a responsibility, and we have committed to doing what’s right for the residents of East Palestine. We have been paying for the clean-up activities to date and will continue to do so,” the rail company said in a statement to ABC News.
“I think it’s important to point out that a Republican congressman and a Democratic congressman who are here, a Republican governor and a Democratic governor who have been working together on this matter, since the moments after that train derailed …This is how government is supposed to work and both working together with the Biden administration to make sure we draw down whatever federal resources there are, whatever federal help that they need, the good people of Ohio and Pennsylvania can know that we’ve put any kind of partisan politics aside,” Shapiro said at Tuesday’s press conference.
“This is not a place for conspiracy theories or political games,” Shapiro said. “This is a place where the good people of Pennsylvania and Ohio deserve answers, deserve accountability and deserve public servants.”
The politicians stressed to the public that the city’s water supply has shown to be safe — at least so far — and that testing would continue.
During the same press conference, Conaway said he “stood by” comments he made on Fox News on Monday night, during which he called Biden’s trip to Kyiv “the biggest slap in the face that tells you right now, he doesn’t care about us.”
“He can send every agency he wants to, but I found that out this morning and 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,” Conaway told Fox News host Jesse Watters on Monday.
On Tuesday, however, Conaway said Biden would be welcomed into the community.
“I would never turn anybody away, if he wants to come visit come visit. We don’t want to be political pawns,” Conaway said at the joint press conference.
“He’s more welcome to come if he wants to come. I was very frustrated last night. If you’re talking about the comments I made last night, I was very frustrated. And, you know, I stand by those comments,” the mayor said.
More heat on Transportation Secretary Buttigieg
Buttigieg also ramped up his response to the train derailment this week with pressure from the DOT for Congress to take action, a multipart push to hold the freight rail industry accountable and a strongly worded letter to Norfolk Southern, in which he accused the company of repeatedly prioritizing profit over safety.
The transportation secretary has faced his own intense criticism. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio even wrote to Biden, calling on Buttigieg to resign.
Buttigieg responded to some of the criticism on a Monday night press call, saying that some of the most critical lawmakers were also some who have tried to “block or weaken rail safety standards” in the past.
He has maintained that he plans on visiting East Palestine when the independent NTSB investigation is finished.
“I am planning to go, and our folks were on the ground from the first hours. I do want to stress that the NTSB needs to be able to do its work independently. But when I go, the focus is going to be on action,” he told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Tuesday on Good Morning America.
On Tuesday, DeWine also called for Congress to take a sharper look at rail standards — something he and Shapiro have talked at length about, he said.
Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.