Sunday, April 14, 2024

Biden to visit East Palestine, Ohio, today, just over one year after train derailment

Washington — President Biden is set to visit East Palestine, Ohio on Friday, just over a year after a freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in the small village near the Pennsylvania state line.

Mr. Biden is set to receive a briefing from local officials on the recovery efforts and continued response in the aftermath of the derailment and hazardous chemical fire involving a 9,300-foot train with about 150 cars in February 2023. The derailment sparked serious health and environmental concerns for residents, who have expressed frustration over the federal government’s response to the crisis.

East Palestine residents’ health concerns 

Among the hazardous materials aboard the Norfolk Southern train was vinyl chloride, a substance used to make a variety of plastic products. Crews worked to vent and burn off rail cars carrying the vinyl chloride, which has been associated with an increased risk of various cancers and neurological symptoms, to prevent an explosion. And although hundreds of residents were evacuated during the vent and burn, some of the residents who had evacuated returned and then started getting symptoms, such as rashes and respiratory problems. A year later, residents say they’re still suffering health issues

Criticism for delayed visit 

Mr. Biden’s visit, which came at the invitation of Mayor Trent Conaway, comes after he received steep criticism for not having visited East Palestine until now. Although the administration has noted that officials were on the ground within hours of the derailment, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg likewise drew ire from Republicans for not visiting until nearly three weeks after the crash. 

During the president’s visit, Mr. Biden is expected to discuss how the administration is holding the rail operator “accountable,” and make clear that the administration is delivering on the needs of those affected by the incident, the White House said. But the East Palestine visit has already spurred criticism for coming a year after the derailment occurred. 

Former President Donald Trump, who visited the village weeks after the derailment, called it an “insult” for Mr. Biden to visit East Palestine a year after the incident. 

“It was such a great honor to be with the people of East Palestine immediately after the tragic event took place,” Trump said in a social media post on Wednesday, adding that “Biden should have gone there a long time ago.”

Derailment became a political flashpoint 

The derailment became a political flashpoint in the days and months following the crash, as Republicans bashed the White House for its response. But the administration has repeatedly made clear that Mr. Biden had been working in coordination with local officials since the incident.

“I’ve spoken with every official in Ohio, Democrat and Republican, on a continuing basis, as in Pennsylvania,” Mr. Biden told reporters in March, when he said he would “be out there at some point.”

Addressing rail safety

The president is also expected to call on Congress to take action on rail safety during his visit, the White House said. A bipartisan rail safety bill that arose in the aftermath of the derailment has been long-delayed in the Senate, where it’s unclear if enough Republican support exists for the measure to clear a filibuster. 

Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, tells CBS News the agency has made hundreds of recommendations that can be taken to improve rail safety, but that rail companies and Congress have yet to move on.

“We’re going to issue safety recommendations that I hope are implemented immediately, whether it’s through a Congressional action, regulatory action, or operator action,” Homendy said. “But then there’s rail safety generally. We have issued many rail safety recommendations that could be implemented today, that Congress could take action on, and I hope they do. For example, we have 190 open rail safety recommendations that we’ve issued with no action on it right now.”

CBS News’ Roxana Saberi contributed to this report.

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