Biden visits site of Ohio train derailment more than a year after toxic disaster

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EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — More than a year after a fiery train derailment spilled toxic chemicals here and turned the area into an environmental flashpoint, President Joe Biden visited residents Friday amid criticism that he should have done so much sooner.

Biden said in remarks Friday afternoon that Norfolk Southern had been remiss in taking appropriate precautions to avoid the derailment.

“This was an act of greed. That was 100% preventable,” the president said.

“I want to continue to hold Norfolk Southern accountable and make sure they make your community whole, now and in the future," Biden said. "And what they do not make whole, what they cannot make whole, what isn’t made — the government will make whole, we have an obligation."

Biden's visit comes as the 2024 campaign ramps up and the president draws renewed taunts from Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who traveled to the community less than three weeks after the derailment. The former president slammed Biden, his likely Democratic opponent, over the issue this week on his social media platform, Truth Social.

“Biden should have gone there a long time ago,” Trump wrote Wednesday. “For him to go now is an insult to those who live and work in East Palestine.”

A day after Trump’s visit last year, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg went to East Palestine.

Last March, Biden told reporters that he’d visit “at some point,” but the trip didn’t materialize. His trip was announced late last month, but an exact date wasn’t specified.

The derailed train in East Palestine, Ohio. (National Transportation Safety Board)
The derailed train in East Palestine, Ohio. (National Transportation Safety Board)

The White House had said planned to use the visit to urge lawmakers to pass federal railway safety legislation that stalled in Congress after the Norfolk Southern train derailed Feb. 3, 2023, spilling dangerous chemicals, including vinyl chloride, and raising health concerns throughout the area. The entire freight rail industry drew heavy scrutiny, and the spotlight prompted a group of lawmakers to sponsor the bipartisan Railway Safety Act, which aimed to strengthen safety requirements, improve train inspections and increase penalties on rail companies for wrongdoing. In May, the bill sailed through the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, but it has gone nowhere since.

Biden said Friday that he wanted to "restate" his support for the bill, noting that trains carrying hazardous waste "should be stronger, they should be able to survive crashes without exploding."

With any disaster affecting a reeling community — especially a rural one with fewer resources — security for a presidential visit in an incident’s immediate aftermath is challenging, so the White House will sometimes delay a trip depending on the conditions on the ground. But soon after the East Palestine derailment, some local officials began to criticize the Biden administration for the lack of a presidential visit. Months later, the village’s mayor, Trent Conaway, whose position is nonpartisan, endorsed Trump in the 2024 election.

The White House has repeatedly highlighted that the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies were on the ground in hours after the derailment and that teams went door to door in the community to check on residents. Biden issued an executive order requiring Norfolk Southern to pay for any long-term cleanup efforts. In September, he issued another executive order calling for the appointment of a coordinator for long-term recovery efforts.

At a White House briefing this week, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden was traveling to East Palestine at the mayor’s invitation. In remarks alongside Biden on Friday, Conaway called the president's visit "long awaited."

In a recent interview, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said the rail company was investing tens of millions of dollars in the community, though some residents said that wasn’t enough.

Timothea Deeter, 27, lives with her parents, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend in a home about 1½ miles from the site. In the derailment’s immediate aftermath, they moved to her brother’s home but came back once the evacuation orders were lifted. The family continues to drink bottled water but gave up on using it for showering and brushing their teeth because they couldn’t keep up with the cost. Deeter, a member of a local advocacy group, River Valley Organizing, said she hoped Biden’s visit would be more than a photo-op.

“I’m glad he’s coming,” she said ahead of the president's arrival. “But if he’s going to come here, he needs to do something. You can’t just come and take a picture when we’ve needed aid for a year. He’s been aware of it. He needs to come and address our concerns.”

Some residents have asked the federal government to test the air in their homes, but the EPA has said it’s not necessary. The EPA has said that since the derailment, it has collected more than 45,000 air, water and soil samples and that ongoing monitoring shows that residents aren’t at risk.

In a report Wednesday, the EPA said that more than 176,000 tons of contaminated soil and 49 million gallons of contaminated liquid have been shipped off-site for proper disposal.

Daniel Winston, a former co-executive director of River Valley Organizing, is among those who want the EPA to mandate indoor air quality testing.

“We don’t know what the health and environmental effects will be,” he said, adding that he hopes the federal government provides long-term health care and financial resources to the community.

“We’re glad that the president is showing up,” Winston said. “I don’t think he took too long to go.”

Winston directed his frustration not at the White House but at Congress for failing to pass the railway safety legislation.

“Washington is still Washington,” he said. “Politics is still politics.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com