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Biden visit gets cheers, jeers

President plans trip to East Palestine one year after derailment

AP ... President Joe Biden prepares to board Air Force One last week. The White House announced Wednesday the president will visit East Palestine later this month,.

EAST PALESTINE — Pressed for several months to come to East Palestine, where a massive train derailment a year ago caused devastation, President Joe Biden will visit the village sometime this month.

Biden, a Democrat, will travel to East Palestine in February — the date hasn’t been disclosed — in order “to meet with residents impacted by the Feb. 3, 2023, 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,” according to a Wednesday statement from the White House.

The administration is working with East Palestine leaders to find a date for the visit, a White House official said.

Karine Jean-Pierre, Biden’s press secretary, said East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway and other community leaders asked the president to visit and “we felt the time was right.”

Conaway has criticized Biden in the past for not visiting the village.

Saturday is the one-year anniversary of the derailment.

Biden administration officials have been to East Palestine a number of times.

Biden has faced criticism and questions for not visiting East Palestine despite saying for months that he would come to the village. Some have said Biden ignored East Palestine because it is in Columbiana County, a Republican stronghold.

Biden administration officials defended the president Wednesday, pointing to what his administration has done for the village since the derailment.

Reflecting on the past year, Michael Regan, administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Wednesday: “For many, it’s been a year of fear, a year of uncertainty and a year of change. We recognize times have been very tough. 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.”

Regan, who has visited East Palestine a few times, said his agency is “laser-focused on this community and our work is not yet done.”

He added: “We will not leave until this community is restored and made whole again. Let me be clear, we will not rest in our mission to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for this disaster they inflicted on East Palestine and the surrounding communities.”

Regan said: “So many lives were upended and so much has changed since last February, but I’ve seen firsthand the strength and resiliency of this community.”

Pete Buttigieg, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, who visited East Palestine on Feb. 23, said Wednesday, the derailment “was not only a crisis for the community, but a wakeup call for the country.”

The White House said that “in the wake” of the derailment, the Biden administration “mobilized a comprehensive, whole-of-government response to support the people of East Palestine” and nearby affected communities.

Within hours of the derailment, the EPA deployed a team of trained emergency response personnel to East Palestine to aid state and local emergency and environmental response efforts. The DOT also was on the scene within hours to support the National Transportation Safety Board in their independent investigation of the derailment, according to the White House.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also has worked with state and local health departments to conduct public health testing and offer technical assistance.

Biden also issued an executive order in September directing that Norfolk Southern continue to be held accountable for the derailment and address any long-term effects to the community and ensure federal assistance is available should needs develop not that are not met by the railroad company. That includes having a federal disaster recovery coordinator in East Palestine working with others to address community concerns related to the derailment.

Gov. Mike DeWine has asked Biden for a federal emergency declaration for East Palestine but hasn’t received one.

A senior administration official said Wednesday that it’s “premature” to make a decision on an emergency declaration because a “needs assessment” hasn’t been finished.

“Our agency is committed, and we will continue to be with the people of East Palestine as they transition to long-term recovery support,” said Anne Blink, associate administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Office of Response and Recovery.

REPUBLICAN CRITICISM

Former President Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner for this year’s election who visited East Palestine on Feb. 22, criticized Biden for waiting this long to go to the Columbiana County village.

In a Wednesday statement, Trump wrote: “With the world blowing up around us, with the Middle East on FIRE, Biden has finally decided to visit East Palestine, Ohio, a year late and only to develop some political credibility because EVERYTHING else he’s done has been a DISASTER. I know those great people, I was there when it counted, and his reception won’t be a warm one. Worst president in history!”

Ohio Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou said: “This clumsy Biden administration has now decided to visit the good people of East Palestine only as a campaign stop to try and resuscitate his collapsed presidency. How foolishly transparent. When victims there needed Joe Biden, he was out to lunch. Too little, too late.”

U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Cincinnati, who is co-sponsoring a rail safety bill in response to the derailment, said: “Biden visiting East Palestine at this point is pure politics. What is he actually going to do for the people on the ground? That’s what matters, not political stunts.”

Asked about the criticism of Biden, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, who also is co-sponsoring the rail bill, said: “People are going to say what they’re going to say,” and “As long as the federal government is doing what it should do and because I go there so many times, we’re mostly doing what we should do, but we need to do more.”

Brown said any public official visiting East Palestine “can help.”

The Brown-Vance bill has stalled in the Senate — and hasn’t gone anywhere in the House — with Brown blaming the railroad lobby for the inaction..

But Brown said: “As I’ve told the people of East Palestine — and as I keep telling them — I’m here for the long haul. I will always fight for the people of East Palestine. I will always fight to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, and I will always fight to make our railways safer.”

Both Biden and Trump say they support the bill.

Buttigieg called on Congress on Wednesday to pass the bill.

DERAILMENT

About 50 railroad cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed Feb. 3, 2023, in East Palestine in a fiery crash. Five of the cars, carrying vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical, were purposely blown up with Norfolk Southern saying there were concerns that an accidental explosion would have caused even worse damage.

The derailment caused the evacuation of thousands of residents of East Palestine and nearby communities.

Several residents have concerns about long-term health issues from the release of toxic chemicals into the air, soil and water.

The derailment has cost Norfolk Southern $1.1 billion, including $836 million for environmental-related expenses and $381 million for community assistance and legal fees.

dskolnick@vindy.com

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