What the Biden administration has – and hasn’t – done in response to the Ohio train derailment

Pete Buttigieg said he planned to visit East Palestine

Graig Graziosi
Wednesday 22 February 2023 08:23 GMT
Related video: EPA orders Norfolk Southern to pay to clean up contaminated water and air from Ohio train derailment

The Biden administration has faced increasing scrutiny in the wake of the Ohio train derailment, as locals question "where’s Pete" and East Palestine’s mayor calls the president’s Ukraine visit a "slap in the face."

Norfolk Southern was forced to vent and burn the train’s load of vinyl chloride, a hazardous material used in the manufacturing of certain plastics, leaving East Palestine residents worried about their health and the longterm effects it might have on their small community.

Since the 3 February derailment there have been criticisms, both locally and nationally, that the Biden administration was slow to move to address the disaster.

What exactly have Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg done since the train derailment, and are the criticisms warranted?

Pete Buttigieg

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has taken the brunt of the criticism since the accident.

Right-wing lawmakers and media, including Congressman Jim Jordan and Senator Ted Cruz, have taken aim at the agency head, claiming he’s been too busy playing politics to address the East Palestine disaster.

"Secretary Buttigieg laughing about Chinese spy balloons, while ignoring the Ohio train derailment, shows you how out of touch Democrats are," Mr Jordan tweeted on 14 February.

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. (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Mr Cruz offered similar criticisms, saying “Secretary Buttigieg in my view instead of engaging in politics should be focused on the job he has now and addressing the very serious transportation crises we’re seeing playing out across the country,” according to The Washington Post.

Mr Buttigieg even took a hit from Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who called on him to directly intervene in the ongoing situation in East Palestine.

"East Palestine railroad derailment will have a significant negative impact on the health and wellbeing of the residents for decades and there is almost zero national media attention," she wrote on Twitter. "We need Congressional inquiry and direct action from @PeteButtigieg to address this tragedy."

Mr Cruz said he "fully agreed" with Ms Omar.

Mr Buttigieg responded to the "newfound bipartisan agreement" between the two lawmakers by pointing out that it is Congress’s job to pass laws giving federal agencies the teeth to effectively regulate industries.

"We could start by discussing immediate steps Congress could take to address rail safety & reduce constraints on USDOT in this area. Give us a call, we can do some good work," he replied.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

He also called out Senator Marco Rubio, who claimed Mr Buttigieg was "MIA on the derailment," by pointing out the lawmaker previously supported a letter softening visual rail track inspection regulations.

"The facts don’t lie. The 2021 letter you signed was obviously drafted by railroad industry lobbyists. It supports waivers that would reduce visual track inspections," he wrote. "Now: will you vote to help us toughen rail safety accountability and fines, or not?"

Mr Rubio denied that his involvement with the 2021 letter was an effort to deregulate the rail industry.

Mr Buttigieg, who said he planned to visit East Palestine, has maintained that USDOT agency officials have been on the ground in East Palestine since "day one," and noted that the National Transportation Safety Board must be given time to carry out its investigation without the interference of lawmakers. He said that the lack of federal visitation to the village was to allow the NTSB to work without pressure or bias from lawmakers.

On Tuesday, Mr Buttigieg suggested that Congress should raise the cap on fines rail companies can be given as a result of accidents.

"Congress can help strengthen our hand by raising the cap on fines for egregious safety violations. The current maximum of $225,455 is not enough for a multibillion-dollar railroad company," he wrote.

In addition to pressuring Congress to raise the fine cap, he also said the USDOT would push for rail companies to be forced to notify residents when hazardous materials are being transported through their communities, and for regulations requiring better safety conditions for crews manning trains, including more robust safety inspections.

Joe Biden

Mr Biden, and the federal government at large, has been the subject of right-wing criticism for taking a trip to Ukraine rather than visiting East Palestine and distributing money to the residents.

During an appearance on Fox News, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said he was angered when he learned of Mr Biden’s visit.

Joe Biden in Ukraine.
Joe Biden in Ukraine. (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

"Absolutely. That was the biggest slap in the face," Mr Conaway said. "That tells you right now he doesn’t care about us."

The mayor said Tuesday that he stands by those comments, but that he would welcome the president if he chooses to visit the village.

It’s difficult to argue that Mr Biden has not been personally quiet concerning the ongoing situation in East Palestine; while his administration has responded with the deployment of federal agencies to the village and offerings of ongoing support, he only recently made a public statement addressing the disaster.

Since 3 February, the day the train derailed, Mr Biden has tweeted extensively about the war in Ukraine, met with Brazil’s president, boasted of accomplishments in employment, manufacturing, and infrastructure, given a State of the Union address, memorialised the University of Michigan mass shooting, offered condolences to the victims of the earthquake in Syria and Turkey, and congratulated the Kansas City Chiefs on their Super Bowl victory. He finally addressed the East Palestine situation on 21 February.

While Mr Biden has not visited the site, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insisted that federal agencies have been active in the response since the day the train derailed, according to The Washington Post.

“Hours after the derailment, the EPA team was on the ground,” she told reporters during a press conference. “I just want to make sure that the American people understand that we did take action and folks were on the ground.”

She assured reporters that the administration “is committed to making sure that the community gets what it needs, and we’ll be there on the ground for as long as it takes.”

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine told reporters last week that Mr Biden had spoke to him after the derailment and offered federal assistance.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine meets with reporters after touring the Norfolk Southern train derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 6, 2023
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine meets with reporters after touring the Norfolk Southern train derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 6, 2023 (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

On 16 February, Mr DeWine requested further federal aid in response to the crash, which the White House provided in the form of an inter-agency mobilisation to the village.

"Today, in response to Governor DeWine’s and the Ohio congressional delegation’s request on February 16 for additional federal public health support, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced they are deploying a team of medical personnel and toxicologists to conduct public health testing and assessments," the White House said in a statement. "The team will support Federal, state, and local officials already on the ground to evaluate individuals who were exposed or potentially exposed to chemicals and help ensure timely communications to the public."

On Tuesday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced that the agency was taking over the clean-up operation in East Palestine, and would use a binding order to ensure that Norfolk Southern continues to rectify the accident under penalty of fine.

Prior to that order Norfolk Southern was voluntarily responding to the crash. Under the new directive, the company will work under EPA supervision and will be bound to meet the EPA’s guidelines as it continues its response in the village. If Norfolk Southern fails to meet those standards, Mr Regan said the agency will step in and conduct the work while fining Norfolk Southern triple the cost of the work.

There is no word on whether or not Mr Biden plans to visit the village in the coming days or weeks. His predecessor, former President Donald Trump, has planned a visit for Wednesday, and has already — erroneously — taken credit for the increased federal response to the disaster.

Despite the criticism, the train derailment doe not appear to have affected Mr Biden’s apporoval ratings.

According to a Rasmussen Reports daily analysis of the president’s approval rating, Mr Biden’s approval has been consistent since the disaster, even gaining a point from 43 to 44 per cent approval between 3 February and 20 February.

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