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    HomePoliticsBiden visits site of the train derailment that became a culture battle

    Biden visits site of the train derailment that became a culture battle

    EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — President Biden arrived here Friday, more than a year after a train derailment that caused an environmental disaster and a political furor, attempting to focus on the steps his administration has taken and to lay the blame on the train company.

    “While there are acts of God, this was an act of greed that was 100 percent preventable,” Biden said, criticizing Norfolk Southern, the company that operated the train. “We were pushing railroads to take more precautions, to deal with breaking, to deal with a whole ranges of things that were not dealt with. Norfolk Southern failed its responsibility.”

    Biden touted work that the administration did in the aftermath of the fiery collision that unfolded in early February 2023, including cleaning up the site and continuing to test the water, soil and air for toxins.

    “We’re not going home, no matter what, until this job is done. And it’s not done yet,” Biden said. “There’s a lot more to do. … We’re going to stay until the very end, until every need is met.”

    The trip came almost a year after Biden pledged to visit the site “at some point.” The village of East Palestine is in a conservative area of a state almost certain to not support Biden in the 2024 election. Former president Donald Trump visited the village a few weeks after the derailment, playing up the contention of some Republicans that Biden was ignoring the locals.

    In the weeks after a derailment that did not appear to be terribly unusual, the event surprised the White House, and many others, by erupting into a culture-war battle. Conservatives accused Biden of ignoring a small, predominantly White town in the heartland as it struggled with an environmental disaster caused by a multibillion-dollar company.

    The uproar got worse when photos emerged of a dark plume of smoke surging over the small town. It was the result of the controlled release of chemicals from the defunct train, but conservative activists seized on it as a symbol of a community supposedly abandoned by powerful elites, saying that if the accident had unfolded in an urban area or one with a minority population, the response would have been different.

    Administration officials forcefully rejected this account, noting that they dispatched environmental experts to the region immediately and saying they approached the derailment as they would any similar event. Biden rarely visits the site of an accident that results in no deaths or widespread destruction, especially because his presence can interfere with the cleanup.

    How a small-town derailment erupted into a culture battle

    But the wounds have lingered. And in a county where Trump received more than 71 percent of the vote in 2020 compared with 27 percent for Biden, the former president’s supporters staged a rally ahead of the current president’s arrival.

    Outside of a Norfolk Southern office that is still under construction, one man worked to place a large sign that read, “Peace On Earth. Trump.” Down the street, others held signs that read, “Impeach Crooked Joe Biden Not a Joke,” “Even My Dog Hates Biden” and “Biden Stole 2020.”

    Several other residents who showed up to the event signaled they wanted more to be done in the aftermath of the spill, holding signs that read, “Help our sick kids” and — in a reference to Beau Biden, the president’s son who died after being exposed to toxic chemicals in Iraq — “Think of Beau’s chemical exposure.”

    Late in the afternoon, at a main intersection in the heart of the town, MAGA protesters and pro-Palestinian protesters converged on opposite corners, perhaps united by only one thing — anger at Biden — amid competing shouts of “Genocide Joe” and “Let’s go Brandon.”

    Later, after he left the derailment site, Biden arrived at the center of the town near where protesters had gathered. As he spent time in a candle shop, where he bought a floral scented candle for his wife, Jill, one group of demonstrators outside was yelling, “Cease-fire now! Cease-fire now!” while another group shouted, “Let’s go Brandon! Let’s go Brandon!” (The latter slogan is an adaptation of a vulgarity regarding the president.)

    Even beyond the protesters, the unhappiness of many residents was clear. “I think if we were in a blue state, Biden would have been here initially,” said Tamara Freeze, who lives next to the derailment site and lamented how divided the community has become.

    “You can bet your butt,” said her husband, Nelson, about Biden visiting sooner if East Palestine was a more prominent place. “If it happened in New York City or downtown Chicago or even Youngstown, they’d have been all over that. But I mean, down here, blue-collar America, you know, it seems that that’s always the way it is. We’re forgotten — you know, until it’s time to fight a war. And then they come knocking on your door to go fight.”

    Tamara Freeze added that while she wished Biden had arrived sooner, she was glad he eventually came.

    I think just that initial support would have helped,” she said. “But I think even though it’s been a year later, I’m happy that he’s — that Biden is coming. I mean, I may not have supported him, I may not have voted for him. But I fully support — he should definitely be here. And even though it took a year, Biden is coming, and I’m hoping that he’ll listen to whoever can speak to him.”

    Matthew McAnlis, who is living in a hotel with his girlfriend, was baffled about why the president waited so long.

    “It’s like, it’s a year later. Why does he even show up now?” McAnlis said. “I mean, what’s he going to do? At least Trump was a past president — he showed up right at the beginning. It took this dude over a year to come. What’s the point?”

    The White House said Biden wanted to visit the community a year later to recognize both the pain it had suffered and the distance it had come in healing.

    “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 told reporters this week. “And so, that’s what he’s doing.”

    Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, told reporters on Air Force One that the government had moved 176,000 tons of contaminated soil and treated more than 43 million gallons of contaminated water.

    He said the administration was still determining what kind of long-term health care problems might need to be addressed, but he said that air and water quality had been determined to be safe. The state of Ohio has been overseeing water quality tests, he said, and “we trust that methodology and believe the water is safe to drink.”

    Regan added that 45,000 air quality tests had been conducted around the area, as well as aircraft monitoring and mobile trucks. Federal workers have also gone inside private homes to do air quality assessments.

    “We believe, and know, based on the science and the data, that the air is safe,” he said.

    Watch: How the derailment unfolded

    Biden received a briefing at the site and spoke about how his administration is trying to hold Norfolk Southern accountable. He also called on Congress to pass the Bipartisan Railway Safety Act, legislation that would phase in newer, safer tank cars and increase fines against railroad companies for safety violations.

    While the center of town was largely filled with protests, Biden tried to cast a more unifying tone a few miles away. He was joined by East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, who last year called Biden’s willingness to visit Ukraine but not East Palestine “the biggest slap in the face.” A few weeks after the derailment, Biden undertook a clandestine train trip into war-besieged Kyiv, earning him plaudits globally but inflaming tensions locally.

    Conaway was more conciliatory Friday. “I want to welcome President Biden,” he said. “Our village has faced many challenges, but as a community we have shown resilience. We won’t be defined by this single event — rather our response to it and our perseverance.”

    He added, “President Biden, your long-awaited visit to our village today allows us to focus on the things we agree with, acknowledge this disaster should never have happened … and ensure this never happens again to another community.”

    Biden did not respond to shouted questions about why he took so long to visit East Palestine.

    “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican or independent. What matters is we’re all Americans,” Biden said during his remarks. “Everyone, everyone. We look out for one another, we leave no one behind. And we come back stronger than before. That’s what you’re doing here.”

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