EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Former President Donald Trump on Wednesday criticized the federal response to the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, as a "betrayal" during a visit to the village where residents and local leaders are increasingly frustrated more than two weeks after the disaster.
Trump, wearing his trademark red "Make America Great Again" cap and an overcoat, said the community needs "answers and results," not excuses. He spoke at a firehouse roughly half a mile from where more than three dozen freight cars — including 11 carrying hazardous materials — came off the tracks near the Pennsylvania state line on Feb. 3.
"In too many cases, your goodness and perseverance were met with indifference and betrayal," Trump said. He appeared with Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, Mayor Trent Conaway and other state and local leaders, giving the visit the look of an official trip.
The former president and other Republicans have intensified criticism of the Biden administration's handling of the derailment, which led to evacuations and fears of air and water contamination after a controlled burning of toxic chemicals aboard the rail cars. The Biden administration, meanwhile, blasted Trump and other Republicans for loosening rail safety measures and environmental protections when Republicans were in charge in Washington — though there is no evidence that having them in place would have prevented what happened in East Palestine.
The trip offered Trump, who is running for the White House in 2024, an opportunity to reprise the role he often held as president, when he surveyed disaster damage and met with impacted residents following tragic events. He said he would donate cleaning supplies along with pallets of what he said was Trump-branded bottled water to residents who remain concerned about the quality of their drinking water.
Trump seized on Biden's decision to make a surprise visit to Ukraine this week, saying he hoped Biden "got some money left over" for the residents of East Palestine when he returns. Biden, who has yet to come to the Ohio town, was traveling back from Poland on Wednesday after marking the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Biden White House defended its response to the derailment, saying officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, National Transportation Safety Board and other agencies were at the rural site within hours of the derailment. The White House says it also offered federal assistance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been coordinating with the state emergency operations center and other partners.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited the site last week and tried to reassure skeptical residents that the water was fit for drinking and the air safe to breathe.
"I'm asking they trust the government," Regan said. "I know that's hard. We know there's a lack of trust." Officials are "testing for everything that was on that train," he said.
Shortly before Trump arrived in Ohio, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced he would visit Thursday after also facing criticism for not coming earlier. He also urged Congress to raise the $225,455 limit on railroad safety fines at least tenfold.
Biden administration officials also called out a decision by the Trump administration to repeal an Obama-era Department of Transportation rule that would have requiring "high-hazard" cargo trains hauling large amounts of flammable liquids such as crude oil and ethanol to be equipped with more sophisticated, electronically controlled brakes by 2023.
Buttigieg said this week that the Federal Railroad Administration will look at reviving that brake rule, but the head of the National Transportation Safety Board pointed out that the brake rule couldn't have helped in this derailment because the train wasn't considered a "high hazardous flammable train." Regulators may now look at expanding which trains are covered by the "high hazardous" rules.
Before Trump's arrival, excavators picked up charred chunks of the rail cars that have been piled alongside the tracks and scooped up contaminated soil. Trucks were hauling contaminated water to a makeshift "tank farm," where it is being stored in metal containers before being taken to a hazardous waste site.
The village of just under 5,000 residents is near the Pennsylvania state line in Columbiana County, which grew increasingly Republican in recent years. Trump won nearly 72% of the vote in the 2020 election, and signs of his popularity remain clear.
Since the derailment, residents have complained about headaches, irritated eyes and other ailments. Thousands of fish have been found dead, 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 and have demanded more transparency from rail operator Norfolk Southern. Some residents close to the tracks say there's still an odor inside their homes.
The gas that spilled and burned after the train derailment — vinyl chloride — is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers.
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