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White House defends response to toxic train derailment in Ohio

‘There are roughly 1,000 cases a year of a train derailment,’' Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said

Train derailment in Ohio
Michael Young passes out water to residents on February 16, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. On February 3rd, a Norfolk Southern Railways train carrying toxic chemicals derailed causing an environmental disaster.MICHAEL SWENSEN (Getty Images via AFP)

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 administration said it has “mobilized a robust, multi-agency effort to support the people of East Palestine, Ohio,’’ since the derailment. 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.

“I’m asking they trust the government,” Regan said. “I know that’s hard. We know there’s a lack of trust.” He said officials are “testing for everything that was on that train.”

No other Cabinet member has visited the rural village, where about 5,000 people live near the Pennsylvania line. But administration officials insisted that their response has been immediate and effective.

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 just one of many derailments that occur each year. A train hauling hazardous materials derailed Thursday near Detroit, but none spilled, officials said.

“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 National Transportation Safety Board’s independent investigation.

Within hours of the Norfolk Southern train derailment, the EPA deployed a team to East Palestine to support state and local emergency and environmental response efforts, the White House said. Officials from the Transportation Department also arrived to investigate what led to the derailment, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been coordinating with the state emergency operations center and other partners, the White House said.

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 a team of medical personnel and toxicologists 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, 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.

“People have been unnerved,” he said. “They’ve been asked to leave their homes.” He said that if he lived there, he would be willing to move his family back into the area as long as the testing shows it’s safe.

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, Transportation Secretary Pete 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.

Ohio state Sen. Michael Rulli, a Republican whose district includes East Palestine, said Buttigieg should resign over the Transportation Department’s inaction. “He has not even come close to being near ground zero and he should be ashamed,” Rulli said.

Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, who toured the site with Regan on Thursday, sent a letter Friday asking EPA to provide detailed 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.

David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, said there been a “breach of public trust” in the response by state and federal officials. The mistrust stems in part from lax right-to-know laws about freight rail and weak notification requirements for hazardous cargo, as well as lingering uncertainties about air and water quality and whether evacuated residents were allowed to return home too soon, he said.

“Because there have been so many missteps, you can understand that the public is skeptical,’’ said Masur, who co-authored a report that detailed risks that trains carrying explosive and toxic materials pose to nearby communities. The report came after a 2015 CSX oil train disaster near Mt. Carbon, West Virginia. A train derailed, exploded and burned for days, contaminating the Kanawha River.

While Regan’s visit was helpful, officials need to offer more than words or sympathy, Masur said.

“To me, leadership is about action – implementing policies to protect the public health and prevent this from happening again,’’ he said.

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