By JILL COLVIN and JOHN SEEWER (Associated Press)
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (AP) — 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.
“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 Feb. 3 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, has 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 now 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 has 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 has also offered federal assistance and that 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 has 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 now, 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.” Only three of the 20 hazardous materials cars this train was carrying were filled with flammable liquids. Regulators may now look at expanding which trains are covered by the “high hazardous” rules.
Almost three weeks after the derailment, the smell of chemicals that blanketed the village is mostly gone. Some residents close to the tracks say there’s still an odor inside their homes.
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 has grown increasingly Republican in recent years. Trump won nearly 72% of the vote in the 2020 election, and signs of his popularity remain clear.
At a car dealership in town, where bottled water was being distributed, a photo of Trump leaned against a barricade, reading, “A Hero Will Rise.” Signs and flags around the village broadcast support both for Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate.
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 are also frustrated by what they say is incomplete and vague information about the lasting effects from the disaster and have demanded more transparency from Norfolk Southern, the railroad operator.
The gas that spilled and burned after the train derailment — vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make hard plastics — is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers.
Environmental officials say that they monitored for toxins in the air during the controlled burn and that continuing air monitoring — including testing inside nearly 400 homes — hasn’t detected dangerous levels in the area since residents were allowed to return. ___ Associated Press writer Josh Funk contributed to this report from Omaha, Nebraska.
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