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President Biden to visit East Palestine derailment site, speak with residents

A drone shot of remediation in East Palestine.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
President Joe Biden plans to visit the site of the train derailment Friday, seen here on June 26, 2023.

President Joe Biden is expected to make his first trip to East Palestine Friday, more than a year after the Norfolk Southern train derailment.

On Feb. 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in the small town on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Three days after the derailment, officials in East Palestine decided to vent and burn vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic gas used primarily to make PVC pipes, that was being carried in five tanker cars. Since then, some residents have reported health effects they say are related to the derailment, and some feel calls for Biden to help have fallen on deaf ears.

"The President will be traveling to East Palestine at the invitation of the mayor to see the derailment site, to be able to meet with first responders who responded to the derailment, to meet with local residents and to get an operational briefing on the continued response that's underway," White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Olivia Dalton said.

While some residents have criticized how long it’s taken for the President to visit, Biden has always been committed to providing assistance and holding Norfolk Southern accountable, she said.

“Well, the President’s intention has always been to come to East Palestine when it was best for the community," Dalton said, "and of course, we’ve stressed and we’ve tried to make clear that federal officials from the DOT [Department of Transportation], from HHS [Department of Health and Human Services], from EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] have been on the ground in East Palestine from the earliest hours after the derailment.”

Biden plans to discuss the White House’s continued support for East Palestine and the need for bipartisan rail safety bills to pass Congress, she said.

On Thursday, more than 200 residents and other environmental activists sent a letter to Biden urging him to issue a major disaster declaration, among other recommendations to help East Palestine residents.

"We need this federal disaster declaration. Once we have that, it opens up doors to federal support," the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment's Jami Wallace said. "Right now, Norfolk Southern is not taking care of us, so when does our government step up and take care of us?"

Wallace supports Biden's visit as long as he plans to take further action outlined in the letter, she said.

"As long as he's coming in to take action, I'm glad that he's coming, but if he's just coming here to tell us what he's done for us and how our needs have already been met, then he might as well stay home," she said. "We need action. We've been waiting for a year."

Dalton did not say Biden would announce any further actions his administration will take during his visit. Instead, he plans to highlight the work his administration has already done and to listen to resident's concerns, she said.

"He'll take that information back," Dalton said. "It's really important to him to make sure that at this year mark with all of the things that have happened so far that we continue to position East Palestine as a community to move forward in a strong way."

Moving forward is one of the biggest desires of community members, she added.

"One of the biggest things that we are hearing from the community is that the people of East Palestine don't want to be defined by this singular event," she said. "They want Norfolk Southern to be held accountable, and then they want to talk about how they moved forward from this."

Biden is expected to arrive at Pittsburgh International Airport around 2:30 pm on Friday, according to the White House, before proceeding to East Palestine.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.