Biden administration counters criticism of response to Ohio train derailment

Defensive Biden administration officials on Friday pushed back on criticism that its response to the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, was lackluster, insisting visits to the affected community would have only delayed efforts to address the incident.

“I think it is important to recognize that this was a serious accident and those of us in leadership positions wanted to and needed for our emergency response personnel to be able to devote their full attention and efforts to addressing the accident,” one administration official told reporters on background.

“That’s why those of us in leadership didn’t show up for more than a week later because when I go to the site, it detracts from their efforts,” the official continued.

The train, which crashed Feb. 3, was carrying at least five hazardous chemicals and forced officials to release toxic fumes to avoid an explosion.

One of the chemicals, vinyl chloride, has been linked to brain, lung and liver cancer. Authorities burned 20 rail cars containing the chemical and other hazardous materials.

Only one Cabinet-level official has traveled to the small Ohio town near the Pennsylvania border since the derailment. That official, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, visited the state Thursday, 13 days after the accident.

The delay has prompted criticism from local residents and federal lawmakers from both parties for not moving more quickly to address their concerns and the extent of their damage.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, said it was “unacceptable” that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up. He called on President Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to visit the region.

Mr. Manchin said the administration needs to develop “a complete picture of the damage” and “a comprehensive plan to ensure the community is supported in weeks, months and years to come.”

At a town hall Wednesday night, residents affected by the train derailment demanded to know why Mr. Buttigieg had yet to appear.

“Where’s Pete Buttigieg? Where’s he at?” one resident asked East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway.

“I don’t know. Your guess is as good as [mine],” Mr. Conaway replied, adding that Tuesday was the first time he had “heard anything” from the White House.

The administration official said it was important to let workers do their job without interference from the White House or agency heads. The official also noted that the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Transportation had dispatched workers.

“There’s still some materials … that need to be removed so that when these incidents happen, we need to let the emergency response take place,” the official said.


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