NATIONAL NEWS

Biden is going to the site of last year’s train derailment in Ohio. Republicans say he took too long

Feb 15, 2024, 9:09 PM

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House, Feb. 13, 2024, in Wa...

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House, Feb. 13, 2024, in Washington. Biden is going to visit East Palestine, Ohio, over a year after a deadly explosive fire there caused by a 2023 train derailment. The president's visit on Friday to the village of 5,000 is at the invitation of its mayor. The White House says Biden waited for the right moment to visit East Palestine but he has faced criticism that he was ignoring the victims. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — For over a year, President Joe Biden waited for what the White House said was the right moment to visit East Palestine, Ohio, facing criticism that he was ignoring the victims of an explosive fire caused by a train derailment.

On Friday, the president goes to the village of 5,000 at the invitation of its mayor and as the Environmental Protection Agency is on the verge of finishing an extensive cleanup paid for by the train company, Norfolk Southern. Republicans have blasted Biden for not visiting sooner and there are some enduring tensions in the community.

“The president has always said when the time is right and when it made sense for him to go, he would go,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “And so, that’s what he’s doing.”

Ahead of the trip, Jean-Pierre said in response to a question that Biden has “no concerns about drinking the water” in the town, where chemicals and hazardous waste spread because of the fire. She noted that EPA Administrator Michael Regan drank the water during an earlier visit.

Democrat Biden is venturing into Republican territory amid a reelection campaign. Aides say it’s a chance for Biden to hear from the community, talk about his efforts to hold Norfolk Southern accountable and push for passage of a rail safety law. A number of administration officials have visited over the past year.

“It’s been a year of challenge, but a year of solidarity,” Regan said in a statement. “I’m proud of East Palestine, a community that has embodied resilience, hope and progress.”

During Biden’s visit, there will be a separate rally for former President Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner. Trump won nearly 72% of the vote in Ohio’s Columbiana County, which includes East Palestine.

Mike Young, the rally’s coordinator, described the grass-roots event as “anti-Biden.” He said he delivered water to the community after the disaster and the president should have been an immediate presence on the ground.

“The sentiment from residents has been: Where were you a year ago?” Young said. “Too little, too late. And now Biden shows up at election time.”

The visit will be Biden’s first trip interacting with everyday voters since a special counsel’s report last week questioned the mental fortitude of the 81-year-old president. East Palestine has emerged as a test of his ability to bridge political divides and publicly show that he’s up for the burdens of the presidency.

The EPA engaged in an intense cleanup and says the community’s air, water and soil are now safe.

It removed more than 176,000 tons of hazardous waste. More than 49 million gallons of water, rainfall and snowmelt were removed or treated. The federal agency is also collecting 2,500 samples to ensure that the cleanup has succeeded.

Norfolk Southern said it has spent roughly $1.1 billion in its response to the derailment. Since the fire began on February 3, 2023, and caused hazardous chemicals to mix, the company says it has invested $103.2 million in the community, including $21 million distributed to residents.

Still, there are some in the community who say more work must be done.

On Thursday, community activists sent Biden a letter that asked him to issue a major disaster declaration for the community, as well as provide long-term health care for residents, increased environmental testing and relocation funding for those who wish to leave.

Krissy Hylton, 49, is among those worried about returning to their homes.

Hylton, an assistant manager at a convenience store, said she would tell Biden about her health concerns. The EPA testing says her home should be safe, but she said she has independent tests that point to a risk of chemical exposure. She worries about where she will live once the lease on a rental home paid for by Norfolk Southern ends in May.

“My home is not safe to go back to,” she said between sobs. “This has been devastating. No matter what day it says on the calendar, it’s still February 3, 2023, to me. Because I have no answers. I have more questions.”

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Biden is going to the site of last year’s train derailment in Ohio. Republicans say he took too long