President Joe Biden will visit the eastern Ohio community that was devastated by a fiery train derailment in February 2023 that displaced thousands of residents and left many fearing potential health effects from the toxic chemicals that spilled when a Norfolk Southern train went off the tracks.
A White House official said Wednesday that Biden will visit East Palestine in February, a year after the derailment. A date for the Democratic president’s trip was not given. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because Biden’s plans had yet to be formally announced.
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 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 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.
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.
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 last week about a potential Biden visit to Ohio, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said she had nothing to announce.
“When it is, when it is appropriate or helps … the community for him to be there, obviously, he will be there. He’s done that,” she said at her press briefing last Friday.
“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.”
She again defended the administration’s response, repeating that federal employees were on the ground providing assistance within hours of the derailment.
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 at least $803 million to remove all the hazardous chemicals, help the community and deal with lawsuits and related penalties.