White House defends response to toxic train derailment

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White House defends response to toxic train derailment

The Biden administration on Feb. 17 defended its response to a toxic freight train derailment in Ohio two weeks ago, even as local leaders and members of Congress demanded that more be done.

The Feb 3. derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, left toxic chemicals spilled or burned off, prompting evacuations and fears of contamination by wary residents distrustful of the state and federal response.

The administration said it has “mobilized a robust, multi-agency effort to support the people of East Palestine, Ohio,” since the derailment. Michael Regan, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, visited the site Thursday, walking along a creek that still reeks of chemicals as he sought to reassure skeptical residents that the water is fit for drinking and the air safe to breathe.

No other Cabinet member has visited the rural village, where about 5,000 people live near the Pennsylvania line. But administration officials insisted that their response has been immediate and effective.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has faced criticism from lawmakers and the mayor of East Palestine for not visiting the site, said the Ohio disaster was just one of many derailments that occur each year.

“There’s clearly more that needs to be done, because while this horrible situation has gotten a particularly high amount of attention, there are roughly 1,000 cases a year of a train derailment,” Buttigieg told Yahoo Finance on Thursday.

Within hours of the Norfolk Southern train derailment, the EPA deployed a team to East Palestine to support state and local emergency and environmental response efforts, the White House said. Officials from the Transportation Department also arrived to investigate what led to the derailment, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been coordinating with the state emergency operations center and other partners, the White House said.

President Joe Biden has offered federal assistance to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, officials said.

In response to a request from DeWine and Ohio’s congressional delegation, the Health and Human Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are sending a team of medical personnel and toxicologists to conduct public health testing and assessments.

The team will support federal, state and local officials already on the ground to evaluate people who were exposed or potentially exposed to chemicals, officials said.

Senior administration officials vowed to hold Norfolk Southern accountable. The company will be required to pay for cleanup of the spill and related fire under the federal Superfund law for cleanup of toxic sites, a senior administration official said.

But the White House insisted that officials on a call with the media not be identified.

Since the derailment, residents have complained about headaches and irritated eyes and finding their cars and lawns covered in soot. The hazardous chemicals that spilled from the train killed thousands of fish, and residents have talked about finding dying or sick pets and wildlife.

Residents also are frustrated by what they say is incomplete and vague information about the lasting effects from the disaster, which prompted evacuations.

Regan said Thursday that anyone who is fearful of being in their home should seek testing from the government.

“People have been unnerved,” he said. “They’ve been asked to leave their homes.” He said that if he lived there, he would be willing to move his family back into the area as long as the testing shows it’s safe.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he was glad that Regan visited the site, but it was “unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up” in Ohio.

He urged Biden, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other officials to provide a complete picture of the damage done and “a comprehensive plan to ensure the community is supported in the weeks, months and years to come..’

“It’s past time for those responsible to step up to the plate,” Manchin said.

Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, who toured the site with Regan on Thursday, sent a letter Friday asking EPA to provide detailed information about the federal government’s response to the derailment, including the controlled burn conducted last week and testing plans for air and water quality.

“The community must be able to trust their air, water, and soil is not a threat to their health following this train derailment,” Johnson said.

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