Biden Visits Ohio Town 1 Year After Toxic Train Derailment

President Joe Biden visited the disaster-stricken rural village of East Palestine, Ohio, on Friday, more than a year after a freight train loaded with hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals derailed there. 

Biden faced enormous criticism for not making the trip sooner, with some Republicans accusing him of ignoring the community because of its history of voting Republican. East Palestine residents and independent scientists have also criticized federal and state agencies for their missteps in responding to the disaster; many people remain fearful about what the chemical exposure could mean for their long-term health.

Biden called the response and recovery efforts in East Palestine over the last year “Herculean” and vowed to hold rail giant Norfolk Southern fully accountable for the disaster.

“While there are acts of God, this was an act of greed that was 100% preventable,” Biden said. “Norfolk Southern failed its responsibility.”

Biden touted his administration’s efforts to date, including monitoring air, water and soil, but stressed there is more work to be done.

“We’re not going home, no matter what, until this job is done,” he said. “There’s a lot more to do. The vast majority has been done, but we’re going to stay until the very end, [until] every need is met.”

Jami Wallace, a lifelong resident of East Palestine and president of the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment, told HuffPost ahead of Biden’s visit that the president should have traveled to the community a year ago.

“The time was then — not even just as a president, but as a parent of a child who was subjected to chemicals and lost his life,” Wallace said. “Where was his empathy for all the citizens in this area that are facing those same unanswered questions about their children when it comes to exposure to multiple chemicals? He’s seen the worst outcome firsthand. So why wasn’t he here just to support the community? The fact that he waited so long shows me that he doesn’t really care.” 

Wallace was referring to Biden’s son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015. Biden has speculated that his son’s cancer was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals from burn pits during his military service in Iraq. 

The train, operated by Norfolk Southern, derailed Feb. 3, 2023, while hauling numerous hazardous and flammable materials, including hundreds of thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing chemical used in the production of plastics. The EPA has repeatedly stressed that the air, water and soil in East Palestine are safe, a conclusion that is based on testing of individual chemicals that have largely been detected at levels below minimal risk thresholds. 

But the situation in the community is far more complicated than any single toxin. Residents were exposed to potentially dozens of chemicals simultaneously after the railroad and local officials intentionally set fire to tankers cars full of vinyl chloride. The so-called “controlled burn” was aimed at preventing a potentially catastrophic explosion, but released thick plumes of toxic smoke into East Palestine and neighboring communities.

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains on Feb. 6, 2023.
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains on Feb. 6, 2023.

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains on Feb. 6, 2023.

The truth — one that EPA has largely avoided talking about — is that authorities have little, if any, understanding about how low-level chemical mixtures could be wreaking havoc on human health, as HuffPost previously reported. The agency’s safety declaration also fails to acknowledge the numerous health issues that residents and first responders reported in the wake of the disaster, including nosebleeds, headaches and respiratory problems. 

“I would rather have the EPA say, ‘You know what — you guys are sick and we don’t know why,’” Wallace said. “It’s been a year of the EPA saying we’re fine and our bodies knowing different.”

“We want the truth, even if it is a hard truth,” she added. 

Ahead of Biden’s visit, the White House sought to allay community concerns and stymie any suggestion that the administration’s response in East Palestine has been political. 

Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said Thursday during a briefing that Biden “has no concerns with drinking the water in East Palestine,” noting that the EPA is “confident” it is safe for consumption. 

“You will see a president that goes out there — whether it’s a red state, blue state, urban America, rural America — to hear and make sure that he is a president for all,” Jean-Pierre added.

President Joe Biden speaks Friday after receiving an operational briefing on the continuing response and recovery efforts at the site of a train derailment that spilled hazardous chemicals a year ago in East Palestine, Ohio. With Biden are Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan (left) and East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick.

President Joe Biden speaks Friday after receiving an operational briefing on the continuing response and recovery efforts at the site of a train derailment that spilled hazardous chemicals a year ago in East Palestine, Ohio. With Biden are Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan (left) and East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick.

In anticipation of Biden’s trip, community members, independent scientists and Ohio lawmakers called on the Biden administration to take additional steps to help East Palestine.

More than 200 residents of East Palestine and environmental advocates sent a letter to Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan on Thursday, requesting a major disaster declaration as well as additional resources for long-term chemical monitoring, health care and relocation costs. They also called for a ban on vinyl chloride. 

“As you prepare to visit East Palestine this week, now is the time for you to adopt and aggressively put these common-sense recommendations into practice,” they wrote.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) requested Biden issue a disaster declaration in July, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has yet to approve it.

In a separate letter to several Cabinet secretaries this week, Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown (D) and JD Vance (R) urged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish a disease registry to monitor long-term health impacts. 

“The residents of East Palestine deserve to know this disaster has impacted their long-term health,” they wrote.

For Wallace, Biden’s visit will only be worthwhile if it is accompanied with more aggressive action.

“The only thing we need from him now is that disaster declaration, so that it opens the doors to get the help that we deserve,” she said. “If he’s not coming here to take action, then this visit is pointless.” 

Biden did not issue a disaster declaration Friday. He did announce that the National Institutes of Health will award six grants to research universities to study the short- and long-term effects of the disaster. And he emphasized his support for that last year’s bipartisan rail safety legislation, which aimed to prevent similar derailments but remains stalled.

“All told, we’ve done in one year what would typically take many years,” he said. “And we’re going to keep going.”

Related...