Trump visits Ohio town of chemical spill, Biden blames him for bad safety regulations

Trump visits Ohio town of chemical spill, Biden blames him for bad safety regulations

February 23, 2023

East Palestine, Ohio: Donald Trump has visited the Ohio town rocked by this month’s toxic train derailment, ratcheting up his 2024 presidential bid as he donated water, cleaning supplies and even McDonald’s burgers to residents affected by the chemical disaster.

But the trip has also highlighted the former president’s role in winding back rail safety regulations while he was in office – including repealing braking requirements for certain trains carrying highly hazardous material.

Former US president Donald Trump speaks at the East Palestine Fire Department as he visits the area in the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern train derailment.Credit:AP

Nineteen days after a train carrying vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate and other toxic products derailed in East Palestine near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, Trump travelled to the small mid-west town, where locals stood in the icy rain for hours hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite president.

Some chanted “Trump 2024!” as they waited for him to pass, while others, such as 20-year-old Kiley Edmonds, held up a “F— Biden, Trump Is My President” banner as she stood on the sidewalk with friends.

East Palestine, after all, is Trump country: emblematic of the white, working-class voters who fuelled his political rise in 2016 and seemingly remain as devoted as ever to seeing him return to the White House next year.

Trump’s motorcade passed the adoring crowd shortly before 2.30pm en route to a fire station where he met local authorities and gave a speech telling residents: “you will not be forgotten”.

He departed the town about 30 minutes later without stopping to acknowledge his fans, but locals were thrilled when he made an unscheduled stop at McDonald’s soon after, to buy lunch for first responders, give away signed Make America Great Again caps, and attack the Democrats.

“Buttigieg should have been here already,” he said, in reference to Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who is in charge of America’s rail network but will only visit the crash for the first time on Thursday (US time).

The derailment took place on February 3 when the Norfolk Southern train came off the tracks, spewing toxic chemicals into the air, water and ground, and forcing residents to evacuate so that authorities could conduct a controlled burn amid fears an overheated carriage might explode.

A black plume and fireball rise over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train.Credit:AP

Residents have since reported everything from sore throats and respiratory problems, to gastroenteritis and rashes.

“I’ve been on steroids and antibiotics,” said Sandra Chirico, as she showed The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald red welts that have surfaced around her right heel in the aftermath of the spill.

“I’m personally not a Trump fan like everyone else here, but I don’t care who shows up, as long as they help us.”

While Trump’s visit was broadly welcomed, the White House hit back at the former president for undoing Obama-era rail safety measures that were designed to avert such disasters.

Among them was a 2015 proposal to require advanced braking systems on trains carrying highly flammable material, which was later withdrawn by the Trump administration, as well as a push to end regular safety audits of railroads and require at least two crew members on freight trains.

Residents take photographs as the motorcade of former US president Donald Trump arrives in East Palestine, Ohio.Credit:Bloomberg

The rail industry, which has about 1000 derailments a year according to government figures, has also aggressively lobbied against broader reform.

Joe Biden, meanwhile, has come under fire for not visiting East Palestine – including from the town’s mayor Trent Conoway, who described the president’s decision to go to Ukraine before Ohio as “a slap in the face”.

However, in a series of tweets, Biden hit back at his critics, and called on Congress to enact safety measures to mitigate future disasters.

Equipment at the derailment site in East Palestine as the cleanup continues.Credit:Joe Appel

“For years, elected officials – including the last admin – have limited our ability to implement and strengthen rail safety measures,” he said.

“Heck, many of the elected officials pointing fingers right now want to dismantle the EPA – the agency that is making sure this clean up happens.

Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg earlier this year. Credit:AP

“Rail companies have spent millions of dollars to oppose common-sense safety regulations. And it’s worked. This is more than a train derailment or a toxic waste spill – it’s years of opposition to safety measures coming home to roost.”

Buttigieg will to meet with community leaders in East Palestine and receive an update on the ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is expected to issue its initial findings.

“As the secretary said, he would go when it is appropriate and wouldn’t detract from the emergency response efforts,” his spokeswoman said in response to criticism that it had taken him too long to visit.

“The secretary is going now that the EPA has said it is moving out of the emergency response phase and transitioning to the long-term remediation phase.”

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