Prove your humanity

Additional reporting by Ideastream’s Josh Boose and Andrew Meyer

President Joe Biden made his first trip to East Palestine Friday since the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train derailment and subsequent burn-off of vinyl chloride that was carried in five tanker cars. He came at the invitation of the village’s mayor, although there were many who questioned why it took the president more than a year to come.

At a press conference during the tour, Biden defended the efforts of his administration since the derailment. He also said the derailment was the result of an act of greed that was 100% preventable.

“My administration ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up the mess it created and make sure it was done right,” Biden said. “That includes an executive order I signed to continue our priority to hold Norfolk Southern fully accountable for this disaster.”

Since the derailment, some residents have expressed concerns about exposure to vinyl chloride and the dioxins created by the burn. During a tour of the derailment site, Biden addressed those health concerns with an announcement of new steps by his administration.

“Today, I’m announcing the award of six National Institute of Health grants to some of America’s best research universities to study the short- and long-term impacts of what happened here,” he said.

Mayor Trent Conaway, who has said he is not a supporter of the president, had nonetheless invited Biden to come to the town to see firsthand the impact of the derailment and the status of the cleanup one year later. Conaway joined Biden in calls for increased regulations of toxic chemicals by rail.

“President Biden, your long-awaited visit to our village today allows us to focus on the things we agree with, acknowledging this disaster should never have happened … address the long-term health concerns and the economic growth of the village and ensure this never happens again to another community,” he said.

Conaway had previously criticized Biden for sending administration officials to Ohio over the past year rather than visiting himself.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan joined the president at Friday’s briefing. Regan pointed out that first responders from the EPA worked alongside local efforts beginning in the hours after the derailment. And he cited the EPA-directed cleanup over the past year.

“To date, we’ve removed 176,000 tons of contaminated soil out of the community for safe disposal,” Regan said. “We’ve shipped more than 43 million gallons of wastewater offsite — more than six million gallons that were treated onsite prior — to being safely shipped offsite.”

The EPA has every available enforcement tool available to ensure that Norfolk Southern completes and pays for the cleanup, he added.

While Biden toured the village, dozens of supporters of former President Donald Trump rallied in the downtown area, protesting the visit. The sentiment of protesters was that Biden was simply “too late.”

Nancy Berdis of Rogers is disappointed it’s taken this long for Biden to visit.

“It’s too late, way too late,” she said. “We need Trump back.”

Trump supporters face off with pro Palestinian protesters across the street.

Trump supporters and pro-Palestine supporters faced off in East Palestine on Feb. 16, 2024. Photo: Abigail Bottar / Ideastream Public Media

East Palestine doesn’t need any help from Biden, Don Skowron of Beaver Township, Pennsylvania, just over the state line from East Palestine, said.

“I think that we can do it on our own,” he said. “We don’t need government aid.”

Ronnie Johnston owns a contracting business, mainly repairing roofs, that he said was hurt by the derailment.

“Do you want to touch roofs that have been sprayed by the stuff? I just got a call yesterday to look at one, and it was half a block away from the derailment,” he said. “It’s a 100-year-old roof. It has all the crap on it. I’m scared to do it.”

Johnston was also out supporting Trump, who he plans to vote for in November.

“I think he would do more to try to establish a disaster zone or establish loans and what not for the businesses around here to get some access to some less expensive money,” he said, “and I think he would be more diligent on the cleanup.”

Ralph Neopolitan of New Castle, Pennsylvania, came out to East Palestine to support Biden.

“I think that he did the right thing by not showing up here right away, because you have to pretty much shut down a train when someone like that shows up to,” he said. “And why would you do that when there’s an emergency going on, and you have to clean the place up?”

Although decked out in Trump merchandise, Brock Severs of Negly, south of East Palestine, said he came to give Biden a chance.

“I wanted to hear what he had to say and what he plans to do to fix what happened here as commander in chief of our country,” he said.

Severs hopes Biden injects some positivity in the town like when Trump visited in 2023.

“I’d like him to reimburse a lot of people and, if not, just bring more life back into the community,” he said.

More than 200 residents and environmental activists signed a letter to Biden this week urging him to issue a major disaster declaration.

In addition to the Trump rally, pro-Palestinian protesters from across Northeast Ohio also rallied in East Palestine, hoping to catch the attention of the president.