Politics comes to East Palestine

David Skolnick

The well-being of East Palestine residents after a horrific train derailment and attempts to get the Columbiana County village back to some sense of normalcy should be top priority.

But the Feb. 3 derailment and aftermath that included releasing toxic chemicals — and the response to the issues — has turned this situation into a game of political gotcha for some.

It’s also resulted in politicians on both ends of the political spectrum pointing fingers at each other.

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway told the media Feb. 22: “We’re a small community. We don’t want the media attention. We want our community to go back to the way it was. That is our end goal. We appreciate you being here. But at some point we ask you to leave.”

This was done at a news conference at which former President Donald Trump, a Republican running for president in 2024, spoke to highlight the plight of those in East Palestine as well as promote himself and criticize response from President Joe Biden, a Democrat who plans to run next year for re-election.

Two days before Trump’s visit, Conaway was on Fox News saying Biden’s visit to Ukraine rather than coming to East Palestine “was the biggest slap in the face. That tells you right now he doesn’t care about us. He can send every agency he wants to, but” Biden “was in Ukraine giving millions of dollars away to people over there and not to us, and I’m furious.”

He added: “That tells you what kind of guy he is.”

A day later, Conaway said of a possible Biden visit: “I would never turn anybody away. This has been made into a political pawn game. No, I would never turn anybody away. If he wants to visit, he can come visit. We don’t want to be political pawns. We don’t want to be a sound bite or a news bite. We just want to go back to living our lives the way that they were.”

He added of his Biden statement on Fox News: “I was very frustrated. I stand by those comments. If he wants to come, he’s welcome.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson R-Marietta, whose district includes East Palestine, said Tuesday: “President Biden has been conspicuously silent. Mr. President, it’s past time for you to make the short trip to” the village.

Biden said Feb. 24: “I’ve spoken with every single major figure in both Pennsylvania and in Ohio. The idea that we’re not engaged is just simply not there. Initially there was not a request for me to go out, even before I was heading over to Kyiv. So I’m keeping very close tabs on it. We’re doing all we can.”

Biden cabinet members said they avoided going to East Palestine to let government officials who were overseeing the aftermath of the derailment and Norfolk Southern’s decision to control burn five rail cars, containing toxic chemicals, on Feb. 6.

But it looks as though they misjudged the backlash to their response.

Since the release of toxic chemicals, Michael Regan, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, has come three times to East Palestine and Pete Buttigieg, the federal transportation secretary who was under fire for not visiting the village, showed up the day after Trump’s visit.

Another issue was Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said Biden reached out to him offering further federal assistance and he declined because it wasn’t needed.

But after an outcry from those in East Palestine and surrounding communities concerned with their health, DeWine, a frequent visitor to the village since the derailment, asked Feb. 16 for additional federal help and it came.

Trump’s stop caused disruption to East Palestine — just as a Biden visit would, because of heightened security.

But it also lifted the spirits of a number of people in East Palestine who admire Trump and lined the streets for a chance to see him.

Buttigieg said during his visit: “I felt strongly about this and could have expressed that sooner. I was taking pains to respect the role that I have and the role I don’t have and that should not have stopped me from weighing in about how I felt about what was happening to this community.”

Skolnick covers politics for The Vindicator and the Tribune Chronicle.



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