Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition
White House defends its response after derailment
Some in Congress, leaders in Ohio say more must be done
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on 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 wary 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 near the Pennsylvania line 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 JeanPierre said Friday. “We did take action and folks were on the ground.’’
Michael Regan, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, visited the site Thursday, walking along a creek that still reeks of chemicals as he sought to reassure skeptical residents that the water is fit for drinking and the air safe to breathe.
No other Cabinet member has visited the village, where about 5,000 people live near the Pennsylvania line. But administration officials insisted that their response has been immediate and effective.
“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 and the mayor of East Palestine for not visiting the site, said the Ohio disaster was one of many derailments that occur each year.
“There’s clearly more that needs to be done, because while this horrible situation has gotten a particularly high amount of attention, there are roughly 1,000 cases a year of a train derailment,” Buttigieg told Yahoo Finance.
He 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 NTSB’s independent investigation.
President Joe Biden has offered federal assistance to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, officials said. The White House insisted that officials on a call Friday with the media not be identified.
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 medical personnel and toxicologists to conduct public health testing and assessments.
The team will support federal, state and local officials on the ground to evaluate those 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, and residents have talked about finding dying or sick pets and wildlife.
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. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., said he was glad that Regan visited the site, but it was “unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up” in Ohio.
He urged Biden, Buttigieg and other officials to provide a complete picture of the damage done and “a comprehensive plan to ensure the community is supported in the weeks, months and years to come.”
“It’s past time for those responsible to step up to the plate,” Manchin said.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, who toured the site with Regan on Thursday, sent a letter Friday asking the EPA to provide information about the federal government’s response to 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.