EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (AP) — Former President Donald Trump on Wednesday visited the Ohio village trying to cope with a toxic train derailment that has frustrated East Palestine residents and local leaders about the federal government’s response to their safety concerns.
Trump’s first stop was at Little Beaver Creek, where he met with area officials before heading to a fire station roughly half a mile from the derailment site.
The trip comes as Trump and other Republicans have stepped up criticism of the Biden administration’s handling of the Feb. 3 derailment, which led to evacuations and fears of contamination of the community’s air and drinking water after a controlled burning of the toxic chemicals aboard the rail cars.
Trump has seized on Biden’s decision to make a surprise visit to Ukraine this week when the president has yet to see the situation firsthand in East Palestine. Biden was traveling back from Poland on Wednesday after marking the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“You have people in Ohio that are desperate need of help,” Trump said Monday during a Presidents Day appearance in Florida. “Those are great people and they were abandoned. But now I think they won’t be abandoned any longer,” he added in an interview the same day with Real America’s Voice.
The trip offers an opportunity for Trump, who is running for the White House in 2024, to reprise the role he had as president, when he often surveyed disaster damage. Expected to be on hand were Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway and other state and local leaders. Trump was set to donate cleaning supplies and bottled water.
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.
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 be there on Thursday after also facing criticism for not coming earlier. Buttigieg has said the government will try to revive a proposed rule dropped by Trump’s administration that would have required upgraded, electronically controlled brakes on certain trains filled with flammable liquids that are designated “high-hazardous flammable trains.” He also has urged Congress to raise the $225,455 limit on railroad safety fines at least tenfold.
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.