U.S. defends Ohio derailment response
White House says it has mobilized a ‘robust’ team to support worried residents
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration Friday defended its response to a toxic freight train derailment in Ohio two weeks ago, even as local leaders and members of Congress demanded that more be done.
The Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, left toxic chemicals spilled or burned off, prompting evacuations and fears of contamination by residents distrustful of the state and federal response.
The White House said it has “mobilized a robust, multi-agency effort to support the people of East Palestine, Ohio,” and noted that officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, National Transportation Safety Board and other agencies were at the rural site within hours of the derailment of the Norfolk Southern train carrying vinyl chloride and other toxic substances.
“When these incidents happen, you need to let the emergency response take place,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited the site Thursday and sought to reassure residents that the water is fit for drinking and the air safe to breathe.
Officials are “testing for everything that was on that train,” he said.
No other Cabinet member has visited the rural village, where many evacuated as crews conducted a controlled burn of toxic chemicals from five derailed tanker cars that were in danger of exploding.
Administration officials insisted their response has been immediate and effective.
“We’ve been on the ground since February 4 … and we are committed to supporting the people of East Palestine every step of the way,” Jean-Pierre said.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has faced criticism from lawmakers for not visiting the site, said the Ohio disaster was just one of many derailments that occur each year.
A train hauling hazardous materials derailed Thursday near Detroit, but none spilled, officials said.
Buttigieg tweeted Friday that his department “will hold Norfolk Southern accountable for any safety violations found to have contributed to the disaster” and will be guided by the findings of the transportation safety board’s independent investigation.
President Joe Biden has offered federal assistance to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been coordinating with the state emergency operations center and other partners, the White House said.
In response to a request from DeWine and Ohio’s congressional delegation, the Health and Human Services Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are sending a team of medical personnel and toxicologists to Ohio to conduct public health testing and assessments.
The team will support federal, state and local officials already on the ground to evaluate people who were exposed or potentially exposed to chemicals, officials said.
Since the derailment, residents have complained about headaches and irritated eyes and finding their cars and lawns covered in soot.
The hazardous chemicals that spilled from the train killed thousands of fish. Residents also are frustrated by what they say is incomplete and vague information about the lasting effects from the disaster, which prompted evacuations.
Regan said Thursday that anyone who is fearful of being in their home should seek testing from the government.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he spoke with Biden on Friday and was assured that any assistance the state needs will be given.
“The president is all in on getting FEMA” to provide direct assistance to the state, and is “all in on holding Norfolk Southern accountable,” Brown told an online news conference.
Ohio state Sen. Michael Rulli, a Republican whose district includes East Palestine, said Buttigieg should resign over the Transportation Department’s inaction.
“He should be ashamed,” Rulli said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, who toured the site Thursday with Regan and Brown, sent a letter Friday asking the EPA to provide detailed information about the derailment, including the controlled burn conducted last week and testing plans for air and water quality.
“The community must be able to trust their air, water and soil is not a threat to their health following this train derailment,” Johnson said.
While Regan’s visit was helpful, officials need to implement policies to protect the public health and prevent this from happening again, said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment.