Energy & Environment

Timeline of the Ohio train derailment response: From EPA’s initial response to Buttigieg visit

AP Photo/Matt Freed
File – A view of the scene Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, as the cleanup continues at the site of of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment that happened on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio.

In the wake of a train derailment that spilled hazardous chemicals in an eastern Ohio town earlier this month, Republicans have slammed the Biden administration, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in particular, for its response to the incident.

Buttigieg visited East Palestine this past Thursday, nearly three weeks after the train derailed near the Ohio town on Feb. 3. The town went through a subsequent evacuation as officials conducted a controlled release of the chemicals in selected train cars, allowing residents to return on Feb. 8.

Former President Trump accused the Biden administration of “indifference and betrayal” during a visit to East Palestine on Wednesday, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) suggested that Buttigieg was shirking his responsibilities as transportation secretary to focus on more politically salient issues.

“I understand that the secretary is politically ambitious, and he’d like to move to government housing in Washington right up the street, but he does have a job to do,” Cruz told reporters.

And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took the additional step of calling on Buttigieg to resign.

“Secretary Buttigieg refused to acknowledge the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, until his intentional ignorance was no longer tenable,” Rubio said in a letter to President Biden, adding, “Even after acknowledging the tragedy, he continues to deflect any accountability for the safety of our nation’s rail system.”

But what has the Biden administration’s response actually looked like? Here’s a timeline of events:

Feb. 10: EPA on the ground in East Palestine after evacuation order lifted

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appears to have been the first branch of the Biden administration to publicly remark on its response to the Ohio derailment, tweeting about its efforts on the ground in East Palestine on Feb. 10.

“With the evacuation order lifted in East Palestine, Ohio, EPA is assisting with screening efforts for residents who request to have their homes tested for chemicals from the fire,” EPA Great Lakes said in a tweet that was reupped by the larger agency.

Feb. 13: Buttigieg says Transportation officials “were onsite within hours” of derailment in first statement

Buttigieg said the Department of Transportation’s Federal Rail Administration and Pipelines and Hazardous Materials teams “were onsite within hours of the initial incident,” in his first public statement on the East Palestine derailment on Feb. 13.

“I continue to be concerned about the impacts of the Feb 3 train derailment near East Palestine, OH, and the effects on families in the ten days since their lives were upended through no fault of their own,” he tweeted.

He also noted that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was conducting an independent investigation of the incident.

“We will look to these investigation results & based on them, use all relevant authorities to ensure accountability and continue to support safety,” he added.

Feb. 14: White House says EPA “working hand in glove” with Ohio in first comments on incident

The White House said the EPA was “working hand in glove” with Ohio in its first public comments on the derailment on Feb. 14, after a reporter asked press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre about the incident.

“The administration has been in close touch with local officials to ensure that they have what they need and that their needs are being met,” Jean-Pierre said.

According to Jean-Pierre, EPA officials had been on the ground in East Palestine since Feb. 4, leading air quality testing and supporting the Ohio EPA with surface and ground water testing.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan emphasized a similar message in a Feb. 14 Twitter post.

“From Day 1, @EPAGreatLakes has been on site and supporting local and state partners as they lead on-the-ground response efforts, following the East Palestine train derailment,” Regan said. “We are conducting 24/7 air monitoring to protect the health and safety of all residents.”

Feb. 16: EPA head vows to “get to the bottom” of derailment during visit to East Palestine

During a visit to East Palestine on Feb. 16, Regan vowed to “get to the bottom” of the derailment and hold Norfolk Southern accountable. He was the first senior Biden administration official to travel to the site of the derailment.

“The community has questions and we hear you, we see you and … we will get to the bottom of this. Anything the state needs, we will be here to help,” Regan said at a press conference. “We are going to get through this as a team, we are absolutely going to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.”

Feb. 17: Biden administration sends toxicologists to East Palestine

The Biden administration announced on Feb. 17 that it would send toxicologists and medical personnel from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to East Palestine, in response to a request from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) and Ohio lawmakers.

“As President Biden told Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro soon after the derailment, the Federal Government stands ready to provide any additional federal assistance the states may need,” a White House press release noted.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also agreed to deploy a support team to help with the response, after DeWine said earlier in the week that the federal agency had found them ineligible for aid.

Feb. 21: Biden slams critics in first statement on derailment

Biden slammed critics of his administration’s response to the derailment in his first public statement on the incident on Tuesday.

“The @USDOT has made clear to rail companies that their pattern of resisting safety regulations has got to change,” he said in a tweet. “Congress should join us in implementing rail safety measures.” 

However, the president said the Department of Transportation has been hampered in enacting rail safety measures by elected officials, placing the blame on the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers.

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

Feb. 23: Buttigieg calls on Trump to support rail reforms during visit to East Palestine

Buttigieg visited East Palestine on Thursday, just one day after Trump accused the administration of “indifference and betrayal” in his own visit.

The transportation secretary called on the former president to voice support for reversing deregulation that “happened on his watch.”

“I heard him say he had nothing to do with it, even though it was in his administration,” Buttigieg said. “So, if he had nothing to do with it and they did it in his administration against his will, maybe he can come out and say that he supports us moving in a different direction.”

“We’re not afraid to own our policies when it comes to raising the bar on regulation,” he added.

Tags Biden administration Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; CDC Department of Health and Human Services Donald Trump East Palestine East Palestine train derailment Environmental Protection Agency Federal Emergency Management Agency Marco Rubio Michael Regan National Transportation Safety Board Norfolk Southern Ohio Ohio train derailment Pete Buttigieg Pete Buttigieg President Joe Biden U.S. Department of Transportation

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