Biden Praises ‘Herculean Efforts’ Following East Palestine Derailment

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (AP) — President Joe Biden on Friday surveyed the federal cleanup in East Palestine, Ohio, more than a year after an explosive fire following the derailment of a train loaded with hazardous chemicals and saw up close the lingering hostility from victims still angry that he waited so long to visit them.

The White House has said Biden was waiting for the right moment to make the trip. He visited after being invited by the village’s mayor.

Addressing residents, Biden said he wants them to understand “that we’re not going home, no matter what, until this job is done, and it’s not done yet.” He did not explain why he didn’t visit sooner nor did he address the community’s collective hurt.

He praised what he said were “Herculean efforts” and announced federal grants to study the short- and long-term effects of what happened.

Signs of the community’s still-hurt feelings were evident. Some people shouted profanity at Biden as his motorcade whisked him into town from an earlier stop in Darlington Township, Pennsylvania, where he greeted local officials and first responders. A sign invoked the illness of the president’s late son, Beau, who died of brain cancer.

Biden arrived at the site of the derailment and saw what resembled a construction site. Rigs, trucks, generators and covered metal tanks resembling above-ground swimming pools dotted the landscape. Local officials, including the mayor, briefed the president.

“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.”

Jean-Pierre said in response to a question before the trip 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 has ventured into Republican territory amid a reelection campaign. Aides said 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 front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump won nearly 72% of the vote in Ohio’s Columbiana County, which includes East Palestine. He visited several weeks after the derailment.

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.”

“Well, I guess better late than never,” said Steven Carpenter, an East Palestine resident who was among those gathering early for Young’s rally.

Mark Happel, a construction worker who lives in East Liverpool, Ohio, and plans to vote again for Trump, said communities surrounding East Palestine were in danger from the chemicals and smoke. He said the biggest issue he sees is the sickness — people coughing, lung issues and colds.

“East Palestine will bounce back, but the ongoing health issues is everybody’s concern,” Happel said.

Trump’s presidential campaign posted a video on X, formerly Twitter, highlighting his visit to East Palestine last year and questioning Biden hadn’t yet traveled there.

The visit will be Biden’s first trip interacting with 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.”

President Joe Biden tours the site of the Feb. 3, 2023, train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Friday. (AP Photo | Andrew Harnik)

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