President Joe Biden to travel to East Palestine on Friday, a year after derailment

President Joe Biden will travel to East Palestine, Ohio, about a year after a Norfolk Southern train derailed there and spilled a cocktail of hazardous chemicals

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will travel to East Palestine, Ohio, on Friday, about a year after a Norfolk Southern train there derailed and spilled a cocktail of hazardous chemicals that caught fire.

The White House said Saturday the president would travel there to ensure state and local officials “hold Norfolk Southern accountable."

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, a conservative who does not support Biden, extended the invitation to the Democratic president, saying the visit will be good for his community.

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 in the accident, and from the vinyl chloride that was released a few days after the crash to keep tank cars from exploding.

Biden's decision not to visit the site until now had become a subject of persistent questioning by reporters at the White House, as well as among residents in East Palestine. Some residents have said they felt forgotten as time passed, and they watched the president fly to the scenes of other disasters, including the wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui and hurricanes in Florida.

East Palestine resident Misti Allison wrote in the Dayton Daily News recently that she will never forget the night of Feb. 3, 2023 when the train derailed and less than three days later, 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride ignited and led to a “huge ball of fire rising into the air.”

“At the time, I didn’t realize that we were watching our old life burn away. Toxic chemicals poured into our air, water and land,” Allison said. “Afterwards, nothing would be the same. All I knew then was that it looked like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Something you read about in the news. Not something in your own neighborhood.”

She said she testified in March 2023 before Congress to push for strong protections to prevent a tragedy like the derailment from ever happening and to prevent East Palestine from being forgotten.

The proposed Railway Safety Act of 2023 has yet to be enacted even a year later, Allison said.

“This is totally unacceptable,” she wrote.

“I would argue that this isn’t a political issue. It is a people issue. Congress must pass and sign the Railway Safety Act of 2023 into law to improve train inspections and mandate that more trains be subject to stringent safety requirements. That isn’t going to completely solve the problem, but it is a start.”

Some 175,000 tons of soil and tens of millions of gallons of polluted water have been removed at the direction of Norfolk Southern and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of a sprawling effort to help East Palestine recover, according to Kelly Yamanouchi with the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The massive cleanup is part of $1.1 billion in charges Norfolk Southern has racked up over the last year for its response in East Palestine, also including legal liabilities.

The Atlanta-based railroad has also made more than $100 million in commitments to restoring the community, including improvements to a park and a new public safety training center.

The EPA has overseen Norfolk Southern’s excavation of contaminated soil from the derailment site completed last fall and continuing backfill and restoration work with large trucks and equipment on the massive site, according to the article from Yamanouchi with the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Soil sampling to ensure contamination has not spread will continue through mid-2024, according to the EPA.

Additional cleanups and monitoring of drinking water are expected to continue. Additionally, many East Palestine residents are worried about long-term health effects.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it will continue to monitor for long-term public health consequences.

The Ohio Attorney General’s lawsuit against railroad company Norfolk Southern for compensation following the East Palestine train derailment remains in flux as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continues its investigation of the incident.

Attorney General Dave Yost on Feb. 2 — the day before the one-year anniversary of the Columbiana County incident — said his office is anticipating the NTSB’s findings. Yost said he cannot agree to a settlement without more information about what led to the Feb. 3, 2023 incident.

“No responsible person should want a rush to judgment in the form of a settlement without having all the facts,” he said on Friday. “It would be irresponsible.”

Last March, the attorney general filed a 58-count federal lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, seeking to hold the company financially responsible for the derailment. His office hopes the safety board will issue a report of its findings later this summer. He added he hopes to learn more about the inspection and maintenance of railcars, safety equipment and detectors.

Yost said he shares the frustration of communities that have waited or are waiting for compensation.

“All I can say is, push forward, be patient,” he said. “The system moves slowly, but it does get there.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kelly Yamanouchi with the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sydney Dawes with the Daily News and East Palestine resident Misti Allison also contributed to this report.