Press Secretary Defends Timing of Biden’s Visit to East Palestine

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Federal officials have been providing updates as the one-year anniversary of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment in the village nears.

And President Joe Biden will soon add his name to that list.

Reports circulated Wednesday morning that Biden plans to visit East Palestine in February. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed Biden’s plans to visit the village during her press briefing Wednesday afternoon, but she didn’t provide a date for the visit. She said the White House is working with local officials on the ground in East Palestine to make arrangements.

“Something horrible happened to that community – a derailment happened in that community that caused some damage, real damage to the folks that live there,” Jean-Pierre said. “We’re taking this incredibly seriously. … He wants to make sure he’s there for this community.”

She indicated East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway and local officials reached out directly to invite Biden.

“The mayor and community leaders invited the president to meet with East Palestine residents and also assess the recovery and progress that has been going on for some time, as you know,” she said. “The president had always said he would go when it is most helpful to the community, and with this invitation, obviously, very recent, and the current status of the recovery, we felt that the time was right.”

There has been criticism about a lack of interest from Biden in the immediate aftermath of the derailment. Political rival former President Donald Trump visited the village Feb. 22, 2023, on a cold and rainy day, where crowds lined the sidewalks hoping for a glimpse of the candidate more than 70% of Columbiana County supported in the 2020 presidential election.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made his appearance a day after Trump and was among U.S. officials who gave an update Wednesday on where the derailment response stands, as well as his concerns about the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass the bipartisan Railway Safety Act nearly a year after the derailment. He is joined in that concern by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who earlier this week said he has pushed both the majority and minority leaders to put the legislation on the agenda, but he believes the push by railroad lobbyists against anything that would hurt profits may be getting in the way of passage.

Jean-Pierre said federal personnel went to East Palestine within hours of the derailment. 

Personnel from the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health and Human Services have been on the ground to support the community, and many remain there today. 

Jean-Pierre also pushed back against some in the White House press corps who called Biden’s decision to visit now a political stunt and questioned whether comments from Conaway and others indicate people in East Palestine really wanted a visit from the president.

“The mayor obviously wants the president of the United States to be there,” Jean-Pierre said. “The president has always said he is a president for folks who live in red states, folks who live in blue states. It doesn’t matter if you live in rural America, urban, suburban – he is a president for all.”

As the one-year anniversary approaches Saturday, East Palestine has had updates from many of the officials and leaders who began coming to East Palestine repeatedly since the derailment, including Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, Federal EPA Region Five Director Debra Shore, Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel and Gov. Mike DeWine.

Updates continue to reiterate how far the village has come since the controlled burn of five cars containing vinyl chloride on Feb. 6, 2023, the removal of train wreckage and the completion of the contaminated soil in October. EPA officials, including EPA Director Michael Regan, on Wednesday continued to state the drinking water, soil and air are testing at safe levels. Regan said through the oversight of the federal EPA, Norfolk Southern has been thorough.

“Because of this oversight and our comprehensive and ongoing site space monitoring, we’re confident that residents of East Palestine are not at risk from impacted surface water, soil or air from the derailment,” Regan said, adding the direction of the EPA continues.

Last week, EPA officials detailed future plans to clean one additional culvert in Sulphur Run and address oil sheen concerns.

Regan reiterated Wednesday the EPA will remain until the job is completed.

“For many, it’s been a year of fear, a year of uncertainty and a year of change,” Regan said. “We recognize times have been very challenging. That’s why I’m so thankful for the leadership of President Biden, who mobilized this whole of government response to support the people of East Palestine, Ohio, and supported the United States Environmental Protection Agency as we worked hard to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, clean up this mess and restore this tight-knit community.”

Anne Bink, associate administrator for FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery, said the federal disaster recovery coordinator who was deployed continues to work with the local community to determine what long-term recovery efforts will be needed.

Norfolk’s Shaw also talks about long-term efforts by the railroad, including investments the railroad has made toward more safety hotbox detectors, $25 million in East Palestine City Park Improvements and the construction of a first responders training center.

As the one-year anniversary approaches and people begin looking both back and ahead, Councilwoman Linda May joined Brown this week to talk about the efforts going forward and how she and the majority of people in the community are really ready to build the community back even better than it was before.

May said houses are selling at above asking price despite the derailment, and those not selling are listed at way above appraisal values. 

Events are being held by the East Palestine Chamber of Commerce and the East Palestine Rotary to bring people back into town.

“We are working with a number of organizations and agencies trying to help rebuild the image and make people aware of the positive features of our community,” said May, listing the Columbiana County Port Authority, Rural Community Appalachian Program and the new public relations firm hired by the village. “We’d like to get the word out about what a good community this actually is.”

Pictured at top: President Joe Biden waves as he walks on the South Lawn as he arrives at the White House on Sept. 4, 2023. (AP Photo | Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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