WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will visit the eastern Ohio community that was devastated by a fiery train derailment almost one year ago, accepting an invitation from the East Palestine mayor to see firsthand how the cleanup of spilled toxic chemicals and the recovery are coming along.
Mayor Trent Conaway, a conservative who does not support Biden, said Wednesday he extended the invitation to the Democratic president because he thinks the visit will be good for his community.
“I’m as red as they come. I’m as conservative as they come. Sometimes I have to do what’s best for the people so, yes, that’s why I invited him,” Conaway said in an interview with The Associated Press.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said earlier Wednesday that Biden would visit sometime in February. She said the White House and local officials were still hashing out timing for Biden’s long-awaited trip.
The Feb. 3, 2023, derailment forced thousands of people from their homes near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Area residents still have lingering fears about potential health effects from the toxic chemicals that spilled in the crash and from the vinyl chloride that was released a few days after the crash to keep five tank cars from exploding.
The absence of a visit by Biden, who is campaigning for reelection in November, had become a subject of persistent questioning at the White House, as well as among residents in East Palestine. Some residents have said they felt forgotten as time marched by and as they watched Biden fly to the scenes of other disasters, such as the wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui and hurricanes in Florida.
East Palestine resident Joe Bethuy, a 36-year-old steelworker and a Republican, said he was disappointed in the Biden administration’s handling of the derailment and the president’s delay in visiting, adding that all he had to do “was show up just for an hour or something.”
Bethuy and friend Jeremy Smith, who moved to East Palestine after the derailment, spoke to an Associated Press reporter inside Sprinklz on Top, a downtown diner.
“I don’t know what the point is really,” Smith said of Biden’s visit. “It’s kind of a year late.”
Several weeks after the derailment, former President Donald Trump visited East Palestine and criticized the federal response under Biden as a “betrayal.” He also donated cleaning supplies and Trump-branded bottled water. Trump currently is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
In a social media post on Wednesday, Trump criticized Biden for planning to visit “a year late, and only to develop some political credibility because EVERYTHING else he has done has been such a DISASTER. I know those great people, I was there when it counted, and his reception won’t be a warm one.”
The Biden administration defended its response right after the toxic freight train derailment, even as local leaders and members of Congress demanded that more be done. The White House said then that it had “mobilized a robust, multi-agency effort to support the people of East Palestine, Ohio,” and it noted that officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Transportation Safety Board and other agencies were at the rural site within hours even though Biden didn’t immediately visit.
Asked at the end of last week about a potential Biden visit to Ohio, Jean-Pierre said he would visit “when it is appropriate or helps … the community for him to be there.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s in a rural area, urban area, suburban area, red state, blue state, the president has always been there to … assist and be there for the community,” Jean-Pierre added. “So, when it is helpful, he certainly will do that.”
Though the administration has defended its response, Biden has not declared a federal disaster in East Palestine, which remains a sticking point for residents. Such a declaration would unlock additional federal funding and assistance that people could apply for to help rebuild their lives.
But state and federal officials say a federal disaster declaration has not been issued because they are designed to help cover unmet needs no one is paying for after a disaster. In this case, there are not as many unmet needs in the government’s eyes because Norfolk Southern is paying the bills and compensating residents for the damage to their homes and businesses.
Biden ordered federal agencies to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the derailment and appointed an official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to oversee East Palestine’s recovery.
Norfolk Southern has estimated that it will cost the company more than $1.1 billion to remove all the hazardous chemicals, help the community and deal with lawsuits and related penalties. Insurance will likely cover much of that, but the total is expected to grow.
Reforms have been proposed in Congress but the bill calling for federal standards for trackside detectors that help spot mechanical problems, additional inspections by qualified workers and at least two people on every freight train crew has stalled. The railroads have lobbied against several of the provisions they believe aren’t related to this crash, and many Republicans pushed to wait until after the final National Transportation Safety Board report on the derailment later this year.
“In the past, there have been times when Congress stood up against the railroad lobby and stepped up on railroad safety. They should do that now,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a call with reporters Wednesday.
Associated Press writers Josh Funk in Omaha, Neb., Patrick Orsagos in East Palestine, Ohio, and Matthew Daly in Washitngton contributed to this report.