President Joe Biden will travel to East Palestine, Ohio, next month, roughly a year after a train derailment there caused an environmental disaster, a White House official said Wednesday.
Biden is expected to highlight the federal government’s response to the disaster while calling on Congress to take further steps to address rail safety, officials told reporters Wednesday. It’s not clear exactly which day he will visit.
The president has been under pressure to visit the area since the derailment on February 3, 2023. The White House has said that Biden would visit the area, but that didn’t happen last year. In contrast, days after the incident, former President Donald Trump visited East Palestine – in an increasingly red Ohio – and criticized Biden’s absence.
What resulted was a political maelstrom, while residents of East Palestine said they simply wanted to know whether the water they were drinking was safe.
“In February, President Biden will travel to East Palestine, Ohio, 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,” the official said in a statement Wednesday.
Biden was invited by East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway and other community leaders to travel to East Palestine, Ohio, next month, the White House said.
“The mayor and community leaders invited the president to meet with East Palestine residents and also assess the recovery progress that’s been going on for some time now,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “The president had always said that he would go when it is most helpful to the community. And with this invitation, obviously, very recent, and the current status of the recovery, we felt that the time was right.”
The incident caused a massive fire and prompted officials to evacuate hundreds of people who lived near the site because of fears that a hazardous, highly flammable material might ignite. To prevent a potentially deadly explosion, toxic vinyl chloride gas was vented and burned, releasing a plume of black smoke over the town for days.
Other chemicals of concern at the site include phosgene and hydrogen chloride, which are released when vinyl chloride breaks down; butyl acrylate; ethylene glycol monobutyl ether acetate; and 2-ethylhexyl acrylate, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. All these chemicals can change when they break down or react with other things in the environment, creating a stew of potential toxins.
Residents were given the all-clear to return to their homes February 8 after air monitoring in East Palestine did not detect any elevated chemicals of concern. Some residents of East Palestine said they had developed rashes, sore throats, nausea and headaches after returning to their homes, and worried the symptoms were related to chemicals released after a derailment.
Residents and local officials have expressed frustration with the response following the incident. During a call with reporters on Wednesday, Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator defended the administration’s response to the disaster.
“Under President Biden’s leadership, our emergency response personnel from the US EPA arrived on the scene within hours of the derailment, joining the local first responders who heroically prevented loss of life, serious injury and additional property damage in the surrounding residential area,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said. “Every day since, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has been laser focused on this community and our work is not yet done.”
That response and subsequent EPA oversight, the administrator said, has left the administration confident “the residents of East Palestine are not at risk from impacted surface water, soil or air from the derailment.”
But pressed Wednesday on if Biden planned to drink the water during his visit next month, Jean-Pierre wouldn’t say.
“You know, this is not about some sort of political stunt here, this is not what this is about,” she told reporters. “This is about this president being a president for everyone and showing up showing up for this community, that’s what this is about. Not going to get into some sort of political stance about drinking water, what we’re going to focus about is making sure they have what they need.”
Biden has drawn criticism from congressional Republicans and former President Donald Trump for his delayed decision to visit the site of the February 2023 train derailment.
And Conaway, the town’s mayor, has repeatedly been critical of Biden, recently telling Fox News: “My personal opinion the best time for him to come would be February of 2025 when he is on his book tour.”
Jean-Pierre downplayed the tension, telling reporters that Conaway “is allowed to say whatever he wants to say. But he also invited the president, this president, this current president.”
She said that the invitation came “very, very recently” and the White House is working with local officials to set a date and time.
In the weeks after the crash, federal investigators said they found it to have been “100% preventable,” but added there was no evidence the train’s crew did anything wrong.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the crash site about three weeks after the derailment. Buttigieg later acknowledged mistakes in his response, saying he should have visited sooner and failed to anticipate the eventual political fallout from the train’s derailment.
In a letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, Buttigieg demanded accountability and called for greater safety regulations and efforts to bolster railway safety initially showed some bipartisan promise. But efforts to address rail safety have since been stymied by Republicans in Congress, Buttigieg told reporters during a call Wednesday.
“Almost one year after the Norfolk Southern derailment, Congress has still not passed the bipartisan Railway Safety Act,” Buttigieg said. “It should not be the case that one year after that derailment, we are still waiting for Congress to act, and yet we have seen many who had a lot to say about this in Congress a year ago still not make clear on the record whether they are for or against this bill, and we’ve seen some House Republicans who have now voted twice to pass legislation that would cut railroad safety fund funding and track inspections.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
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