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Ohio Democrats at odds over Biden yet to visit East Palestine

By Caroline Vakil,

2023-03-14

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Some Ohio Democrats are questioning President Biden’s lack of travel to East Palestine more than a month after a train derailment spilled toxic chemicals into the community, triggering environmental and health concerns.

Biden said earlier this month that he would visit the area “at some point,” though no formal announcements have been made. Republicans have criticized Biden and his administration for their response to the derailment, including that the president has yet to visit the site of the disaster.

Though many Democrats in both Ohio and Pennsylvania have defended the president for not immediately touring the area, some have voiced concern that Biden is opening himself up to easy GOP attacks while letting other presidential contenders steal the spotlight.

“If this accident had happened in Georgia or Pennsylvania, he would have been here by now,” said Ohio-based Democratic strategist Irene Lin.

Lin explained that there’s “extreme frustration” that former President Trump, who visited East Palestine several weeks ago, “beat us to it.”

“We know [Trump’s] administration did nothing to help with railroad safety,” she asserted. “But he showed up and showed that he actually cared, and I think that’s frustrating to … me personally and to other Democrats.”

Former Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) also said that Biden needed to visit the state, saying, “I think a lot of people are waiting.”

“A community of people, not just in East Palestine, but around the state, who, in so many ways feel like the federal government has forgotten them, forgotten their plight, forgotten what’s happened to them over the last 30 or 40 years, and then they want the president to show up,” he said.

The former congressman stressed that he didn’t believe Biden didn’t care about the situation happening in Ohio, saying he “very well may be the most empathetic person I’ve ever met in my life.” But Ryan added that he didn’t know “what the calculation” was for not already visiting the derailment area.

Nina Turner, a former Democratic Ohio state senator, also asserted that the incident calls for a presidential visit, saying in a tweet , “I do not care if the President is a Democrat or Republican—not showing up to an ecological disaster on the level of East Palestine for over a month is absolutely inexcusable.”

“The damage done to this community and the environment demanded the empathy and urgency of a visit,” she added.

At the same time, other Democrats in Ohio and Pennsylvania are defending the president’s lack of an itinerary and suggesting the response from agencies and aligned groups is more important.

“I don’t care if he visits or not. What I care about is that the EPA’s there, that the Department of Transportation’s there, that the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] is there. And we’re all there pushing for this legislation and pushing Norfolk Southern,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), referring to bipartisan rail safety legislation.

“I know that the administration’s engaged that way. I’m going to be there damn near every month, and I talk to people there all the time and continue to push them. A presidential visit doesn’t concern me either way, the action that we take does,” he added.

The White House did not return requests for comment regarding this story.

In February, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, close to the Pennsylvania border, leaving behind spills that contained several hazardous materials .  Some residents were evacuated because of the release of a carcinogen called vinyl chloride before officials announced it was safe to return several days later.

The crisis has triggered concerns about the environmental and health safety risks posed by the incident not just in East Palestine, home to close to 5,000 residents, but for all of those who live near railroad tracks.

“I may be two hours away, but I live five houses from the railroad tracks — the railroad tracks that many of these trains carrying cargo go through,” state Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio (D) told The Hill.

“That train specifically traveled through parts of Cleveland, which is also part of my district, densely populated communities,” she continued. ”So I think everyone in Ohio right now and in the country, but certainly communities that are along the rail lines, are very, very concerned about their own health and safety. They want to know what’s in these trains.”

The Biden administration has said that it took a host of actions following the derailment to support on-the-ground efforts, noting that the EPA showed up the morning after the incident and has been involved in efforts to test surface and ground water and tracking air quality. The administration also noted that the NTSB is investigating why the derailment occurred, and that toxicologists and medical personnel from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Health and Human Services have been sent to the state.

But some Republicans have criticized the administration’s response to the crisis, slamming the president for traveling to Ukraine first — a trip that was made at the one-year mark of the Russian invasion. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has also been criticized for visiting East Palestine three weeks after the derailment.

“You also just want leaders to actually show up and let people know that they care, and that’s one of the ways in which the Biden administration has been a totally catastrophic failure,” Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) said in an interview on Fox News earlier this month.

Trump, who’s running for president in 2024, visited East Palestine shortly before Buttigieg.

“To the people of East Palestine and to the nearby communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, we have told you loud and clear, you are not forgotten,” he told the Ohio community.

Buttigieg conceded in an interview with CNN published last week that a visit to East Palestine should have come sooner. But he argued to the network that it was “bull—-” to suggest that his visit to the state was prompted by Trump’s earlier visit.

The White House, too, has defended the president from criticism that he hasn’t yet visited the state and argued that he’s been in communication with elected officials from both Ohio and Pennsylvania about the situation.

“Look, what the President has been focused on is making sure that we make the community, the people of East Palestine whole again, to make sure that they get what they need to feel safe, to make sure that they feel like their community is healthy again,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters earlier this month.

Many Democrats have also said in defense of the president that it’s more important for the administration to address health and safety risks first before making a visit. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) suggested it was not a big deal that Biden had not yet visited the area.

T.J. Rooney, former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, noted that moving a president into a disaster area could disrupt relief efforts and said that Biden will visit when the timing was more conducive to the area.

“I think it’s a matter of time, and his schedule [will] be dictated on the events on the ground, not what [Reps.] Matt Gaetz [R-Fla.] and Marjorie Taylor Greene [R-Ga.] have to say about it,” Rooney said.

David Pepper, who previously served as the chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, believed Biden should visit the area and that the “timetable should be sooner rather than later,” but Pepper waved off the idea that the president wasn’t visiting the Buckeye State because of its red political leanings.

“I don’t think that at all. Biden’s come to Ohio a bunch. I think Biden, to his credit, he’s been to Ohio many times,” Pepper said.

Other Democrats say Biden visiting the state would be a good move but suggest that signing legislation is the more important.

“I think it would be good for the president to visit, but the most important thing is providing every resource available to the people on the ground, the people of East Palestine and surrounding areas,” said Antonio, the state Senate minority leader.

“… What I want to see President Biden do is sign legislation when it’s brought to him for rail safety,” she added. “To me, that’s a very important part of what we expect to see him do going forward.”

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