Former President Donald Trump is slated to visit East Palestine, Ohio, on Wednesday as the 2024 presidential candidate and others intensify their criticism of the Biden administration’s response to the environmental disaster caused by a derailed train.
The former president has joined a chorus of critics, including conservative political commentator Tucker Carlson, GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, in questioning the administration’s handling of the chemical disaster.
The high-profile criticism of the administration’s response — including pressure from allies to do more — suggests that the scrutiny over the train derailment’s causes and disastrous aftermath is just getting started. Capitol Hill lawmakers are demanding answers and have announced an upcoming hearing to examine the aftermath of the wreck.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, is stepping up federal support for the region and defending its actions in the wake of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan traveled to East Palestine for the second time Tuesday to announce that his agency is taking over the federal response and ordering the rail company Norfolk Southern to clean up from the disaster. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to Norfolk Southern accusing the rail company of raking in profits while opposing safety measures and announced a plan Tuesday morning to reform rail safety.
Trump, who’s running to take back the White House in 2024, has seized on the incident as a chance to hammer the administration ahead of another possible Trump vs. Biden campaign.
After Trump made plans last week to visit East Palestine, he posted on his Truth Social account, “Great people who need help, NOW!”
The former president also claimed credit for plans by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send additional aid to the area after Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine had initially said FEMA had deemed Ohio ineligible for assistance.
“Biden and FEMA said they would not be sending federal aid to East Palestine,” Trump wrote. “As soon as I announced that I’m going, he announced a team will go. Hopefully he will also be there.”
It’s common for presidents and their top aides to visit the sites of disasters, including areas hit by hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and oil spills. President Barack Obama traveled to Flint, Mich., as that city grappled with a drinking water crisis. He also traveled to Louisiana during the oil spill caused by the explosion of the BP Deepwater Horizon offshore rig.
Trump visited disaster sites as well, including his 2017 visit to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, where he prompted outrage for tossing paper towel rolls into a crowd and telling officials they should be proud of the relatively low death count compared with Hurricane Katrina.
And President George W. Bush drew scorn for flying over the wreckage of Katrina from Air Force One while people were dying in New Orleans.
Sending presidents and top officials to disaster sites sends a signal to the public, but those visits are often more about optics than about the work being done to clean up from disasters, said former government officials.
Generally, “people make a lot of noise” about which government officials go to the site of a disaster, said Craig Fugate, who served as FEMA administrator from 2009 until 2017. Those appearances typically don’t “really add anything to the actual work that’s being done,” he said.
“I’ve been on enough disasters,” Fugate added, to know that “whether the principals show up or not, it doesn’t change what’s happening on the ground.”
As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump traveled to flood-ravaged Baton Rouge, La., despite the governor’s request at the time that the disaster not be used as a political “photo op,” Reuters reported.
“Trump showed up and then the conservatives basically crowed” about President Obama not having visited, said Fugate, who was leading FEMA at the time. “We were coordinating with [Louisiana] Governor [John Bel] Edwards who said, ‘I’ve still got an active response and I don’t have the resources to pull to provide for a White House visit.’”
It’s helpful following a disaster to send government officials who are responsible for the cleanup to provide information to the public and to help build public confidence, said Bob Perciasepe, who served as EPA’s deputy administrator during the Obama administration. “What’s going on now is exploitation of the situation,” he said of Trump’s visit.
The Biden administration’s Ohio response has become fodder for Fox News’ Carlson.
The conservative commentator accused the administration of failing to pay attention to the disaster until “pictures of it evoked outrage on social media. … They didn’t even notice. It had nothing to do with equity or climate change. East Palestine is a poor, White town that voted for Trump. So honestly, who cares? No one in the Biden administration did care and that’s an atrocity.”
According to the White House, EPA personnel had arrived at the site before dawn Feb. 4 to support state and local officials, who were leading the emergency response efforts.
“This is certainly a priority for the administration — the health and the safety of the community in East Palestine,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters last week.
Still, Republicans and Democrats alike have wondered why the administration didn’t send a high-profile figure sooner to signal its support for the village of about 5,000 people near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
“There’s a tremendous value when a catastrophe occurs of a high-ranking official taking charge and doing two things,” said William Reilly, who led EPA during the George H.W. Bush administration.
“One is bringing people together who know what the nature of the problem is and getting them to agree and coalesce on a solution. But secondly — and this is equally important — communicating to the locally impacted people and to the country. The communication part is enormously important. And that did not happen here,” he said.
Manchin, a Democratic senator and Biden ally, welcomed Regan’s first visit last week to East Palestine, which is 20 miles from the border of Manchin’s home state of West Virginia. Still, Manchin called it “unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up.”
Trump’s upcoming visit to Ohio has fueled conservatives’ complaints about Biden’s own concern for the residents of East Palestine.
Boebert, a Colorado Republican, slammed the president on Twitter on Monday as Biden made a surprise trip to Kyiv to highlight U.S. support for Ukraine nearly a year after Russia launched its invasion.
“Biden spent five hours in Kyiv,” Boebert wrote. “That’s five hours more than he spent in East Palestine.”
Asked Tuesday whether he’d like Biden to visit the Ohio community impacted by the disaster, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conway told reporters he wouldn’t turn anyone away and that the president would be welcome. “We don’t want to be political pawns,” Conway said.
Conway on Monday told Fox News that Biden’s visit to Ukraine was “the biggest slap in the face.” He added, “That tells you right now he doesn’t care about us.”
Buttigieg draws GOP frustration
Buttigieg, a former Democratic presidential candidate, has become a popular target for conservatives’ ire over the Ohio incident.
Boebert and others have also criticized Buttigieg for failing to visit the Ohio disaster, where derailed train cars carried carcinogenic vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals.
A controlled burn of the chemicals on Feb. 6 helped to reduce the risk of a major explosion but forced hundreds of nearby residents to temporarily evacuate their homes, and residents and lawmakers have expressed concerns about the safety of air and water in the region (Greenwire, Feb. 14).
Rubio, a Florida Republican, sent a letter to Biden last week asking the president to demand that Buttigieg resign. “The circumstances leading up to the derailment point to a clear lack of oversight and demand engagement by our nation’s top transportation official,” the senator wrote.
Buttigieg plans to visit East Palestine “when the time is right,” he told Spectrum News. He said he had been following the common practice of Transportation secretaries to allow the National Transportation Safety Board to serve as the lead on safety investigations.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the derailment is ongoing.
When asked about criticism of Buttigieg for his role in the federal response, Jean-Pierre told reporters last week that the White House has “absolute confidence” in the Transportation secretary.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, agreed with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) on Twitter about the need for a congressional inquiry and “direct action” from Buttigieg.
In his letter Sunday to Norfolk Southern’s President and CEO Alan Shaw, Buttigieg wrote, “Norfolk Southern must live up to its commitment to make residents whole — and must also live up to its obligations to do whatever it takes to stop putting communities such as East Palestine at risk.”
“I think it’s pretty remarkable for the former president to go to the scene of a disaster that he could have helped prevent potentially,” said David Hayes, a former Biden White House climate official who served as deputy Interior secretary during the Obama and Clinton administrations. Hayes pointed to the Trump administration’s moves to roll back safety rules for the rail industry.
The Trump administration rolled back Obama-era regulations that would’ve required modern brakes on some trains that carry oil and ethanol (Energywire, Sept. 25, 2018).
The rules probably wouldn’t have applied to the train that derailed in East Palestine, but they would have been a start toward improving the industry’s safety, said Kristen Boyles, an attorney at Earthjustice who has challenged the Trump administration’s decision.
“I think if you start requiring them on some trains, it becomes less costly to put the brakes” on other trains, Boyles said.
Norfolk Southern has pledged to spend more than $5.6 million on disaster recovery, including $3.4 million in direct assistance to families. “I want residents of East Palestine to know that Norfolk Southern will be in their community to help for as long as needed,” Shaw said in a statement.
The Transportation secretary on Tuesday called on Norfolk Southern and other major railroads to protect workers from retaliation if they report safety violations, improve their inspection processes and provide sick leave for workers.
The Department of Transportation, among other steps, will move forward with a proposed regulation to require two-person crews on freight trains, something the industry has opposed. It’ll also begin a focused inspection program for rail systems that handle hazardous cargo and for tank cars that carry hazardous cargo.
Buttigieg called on Congress to increase the fines for railroad companies that violate safety rules, speed up the removal of older-vintage tank cars, and pass legislation requiring modern brakes and other improvements on trains that carry high-hazard flammable materials.
Reporters Mike Lee, Kevin Bogardus and Timothy Cama contributed.