The White House is doing a victory lap on its response to the derailment of a train hauling toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, last year as President Biden prepares to visit the site for the first time.
The administration’s media blitz Wednesday comes nearly 12 months after the disaster which occurred in early February 2023, and sparked fears of widespread contamination of the region’s air and water supply. In the aftermath of the event, the federal government led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took action to clear the derailment site, remove waste and implement new rail safety measures.
“We have been at work here at the U.S. Department of Transportation throughout this entire process and we’ll continue to do so. Safety is our department’s main reason for being. Whether it’s aviation safety, roadway safety or railway safety, it is always our top priority,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters Wednesday. “All of this was at stake and continues to be at stake in the response to what happened one year ago.”
“For many, it’s been a year of fear, a year of uncertainty and a year of change,” added EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “We recognize times have been very challenging. That’s why I’m so thankful for the leadership of President Biden, who mobilized this whole-of-government response to support the people of East Palestine, Ohio, and supported the United States Environmental Protection Agency as we worked hard to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, clean up this mess and restore this tight-knit community.”
The White House also announced Wednesday that Biden would visit the site in East Palestine at some point next month to witness the ongoing cleanup effort. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said shortly after the incident that Biden would visit the site, but those plans never came to fruition last year.
When pressed in September about why he hadn’t made the visit, Biden said he hasn’t “been able to break.”
Overall, according to federal data released on Friday, the EPA has shipped an estimated 176,787 tons of solid waste and 44.4 million gallons of wastewater from the site since February. Workers have also completed all planned excavation and continue to backfill as test results indicate contaminated soil has been removed.
In addition, the White House highlighted additional federal work testing air quality, supporting local community members, investigating the cause of the derailment and monitoring potential health impacts to nearby residents. The work involves EPA, the Department of Transportation, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Agriculture.
“On behalf of FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell and the entire Biden-Harris administration, I want to reiterate and express that our agency is committed and we will continue to be with the people of East Palestine as they transition to long-term recovery support,” Anne Bink, the associate administrator for FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery, said Wednesday.
However, despite his administration’s work clearing the area, Biden failed to ever issue a national disaster declaration which Ohio officials repeatedly requested. In July, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine sent a letter to Biden doubling down on his request and, one month later, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, urged FEMA to grant DeWine’s request to “unlock additional resources from the federal government.”
“It’s our responsibility to do everything possible to help them recover. I will continue to do all in my power to support the families and small businesses of East Palestine,” Brown wrote to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. “Now it is your time to step up and provide the support that only FEMA can.”
In September, Biden signed an executive order ordering FEMA to appoint a federal disaster recovery coordinator to oversee cleanup efforts. But he declined to grant Ohio’s disaster declaration request, instead choosing to hold the request open pending future developments.
“We’re continuing to provide federal coordination through the appointment of the federal disaster recovery coordinator to support the identification of unmet needs in East Palestine,” a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday. “That was one of our major charges through the executive order. We’re continuing to do that right now.”
“But that work remains ongoing, and it’s really premature to judge what additional federal resources may be required at this time,” the official added. “As more information is known, we’ll certainly share it.”
On Feb. 3, 2023, a train carrying vinyl chloride, a dangerous colorless gas, and operated by the transportation company Norfolk Southern Railroad derailed in East Palestine, which is located along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Shortly after the derailment, Norfolk Southern opted to release the gas from the derailed cars, potentially releasing deadly fumes into the air, to prevent a potentially disastrous explosion.
Local residents were told to evacuate the area during the release, but were assured it was safe to return less than a week later. Experts, though, expressed concern that the air and water was not safe.
“This really looks like a nuclear winter,” Sil Caggiano, a local hazardous materials specialist, told Fox News at the time. “Pretty much, yeah, we nuked this town with chemicals.”
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