Biden visits East Palestine, Ohio, more than a year after derailment

Visit Friday afternoon comes after president has taken heat from residents and others for not making trip to train wreck site
A welcome sign greets motorists, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in East Palestine. (Matt Freed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Matt Freed

Credit: Matt Freed

A welcome sign greets motorists, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in East Palestine. (Matt Freed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

President Joe Biden is visiting East Palestine, Ohio for the first time on Friday — more than a year after a the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials that disrupted the lives of residents.

Residents in East Palestine have had varying perspectives on the prospect of Biden’s visit since it was announced late last month. Some have continuing concerns about the effects of the derailment and the release of toxic chemicals in their town.

East Palestine residents recently spoke to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter in a series of interviews. Here’s what they and officials who have responded to the Feb. 3, 2023, disaster said:

Chad Edwards, East Palestine town manager

East Palestine village manager Chad Edwards poses for a portrait, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in East Palestine. (Matt Freed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Matt Freed

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Credit: Matt Freed

Edwards said his message for Biden would be, “Don’t forget about us.”

“Appalachian communities often get forgotten about,” Edwards said. “I’d say that’s probably true of all of rural America,” Edwards said. “We are an American city like American cities all over the country and we’re trying to build.

“We have a situation where our businesses have been affected by this. And I would say unfairly,” Edwards said. “That might be something the federal government, you know, could shine some light on the things we’re doing” to revitalize the town.

Hilary Flint, vice president of the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment

Hilary Flint speaks at a rally in Pittsburgh, Pa. on November 8, 2023. Credit: Mark Dixon

Credit: Mark Dixon

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Credit: Mark Dixon

“These areas have swung back and forth politically. Especially with, like, the Trump presidency. You know, typically we’re a blue collar area, we’ll vote Democrat, but with a Trump presidency, people, like, went to the other side,” said Flint, whose group formed to advocate for residents who have health concerns and other issues.

“I think any hope that Biden had of, like, winning those people back — When he did not come in that first month, that was out the door, and I don’t think that’s just for people here,” Flint said. “I think that that was a failed message on his part, to a lot of the rural small town communities.

“My family worked in steel mills and railroads. That is what people did here. You know, they were miners,” she said. “And so that kind of opens the door for a lot of other industries to come in, because we’ve been in a depression for so long after the steel mills left. And so you know, we have a lot of blue collar families here.

“It’s an attitude that this area, we’re just so used to environmental pollution and even when it you know, leads to health impacts. ... People just have this attitude of ... you know, the older people in the area, ‘Oh, I was exposed to worse when I was younger, so it doesn’t matter.’” Flint said. “And that’s the narrative. ‘We’re used to it. You know, we’ve done this for decades.’

“I didn’t very much believe in the narrative that just because we’re used to it. We should keep allowing it to happen,” Flint said. “And I’m not saying shut down industry. For me personally, I’m saying, you know, we need better regulations.”

East Palestine resident Chris Albright

Chris Albright stands in front of his house in East Palestine, Ohio.

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

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Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

“I am very, very, very mixed” on Biden’s visit, Albright said. “Number one, why did you wait so long? ... We’re not that important to come here?”

As if speaking to Biden directly, he said: “On the other side, I’m glad you’re finally coming here. You really need to do that.”

Albright said he has suffered health problems after the derailment, was diagnosed with heart failure, and has left work. He’s also concerned about health risks for his children.

“What if my daughter gets cancer? What if they can’t have kids? You know, we don’t know the effects. We don’t know what’s going to happen to them. And that’s scary. I don’t know.”

East Palestine business owner Bob Figley

Bob Figley poses for portrait in his store, Brushville Supply, along East Taggart Street, Thursday, Feb. 1, 2024, in East Palestine. (Matt Freed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Matt Freed

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Credit: Matt Freed

“We don’t know what the risk is here. We don’t feel safe here,” said Figley, who owns Brushville Supply & Hardware across the street from the derailment site.

He is among the residents who have joined a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern.

“(The railroad) disrupted our whole life that we’ve worked for many decades,” he said. He said he wants to expand his store, but “Do I risk spending the money on a property?” He’s worried about throwing good money after bad.

“Let’s say if I invest in the building and then all of a sudden next year they say, ‘Well, it’s contaminated,’” he said.

Figley’s wife, on the other hand, wants the store to be relocated, he said. Their grandson works in the store, “so she’s worried about his health,” Figley said. “He’s working here, he’s got a baby.”

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw answers questions during an interview at Norfolk Headquarters in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. (Miguel Martinez/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Shaw, who was nine months in the top job at Norfolk Southern when the derailment happened, told the AJC in a Jan. 25 interview “There’s no playbook for this.

... From day one, I said that we were going to clean the site safely and thoroughly with urgency. We were going to help the community recover and we’re going to help the community thrive,” Shaw said.

“And we’re going to listen to the community and we’re going to provide a response where five years from now, 10 years from now, we could look back and be proud of our response. But frankly, more importantly, the citizens in the community could look back and be proud of our response.

“EPA and Ohio EPA and local health authorities continue to test what has been thousands and thousands of tests and millions and millions of data points. They all come back with the same result: The air is safe to breathe. The water is safe to drink.

“We also understand over the long term that’s an issue and so we’re working with key stakeholders on a long term medical fund.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan

President Biden “mobilized his whole of government response to support the people of East Palestine, Ohio, and supported the United States Environmental Protection Agency as we work hard to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, clean up this mess and restore this tight-knit community,” Regan said during a press briefing last month.

“Under President Biden’s leadership, emergency response personnel from the U.S. EPA arrived on the scene within hours of the derailment, joining the local first responders who heroically prevented loss of life, serious injury and additional property damage in the surrounding residential area. Every day since, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has been laser-focused on this community and our work is not yet done.

“The U.S. EPA will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the East Palestine community until we are certain that every bit of hazardous contamination has gone. We will not leave until this community is restored and made whole again.

“And let me be clear, we will not rest in our mission to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for this disaster they inflicted on the people of East Palestine and its surrounding communities,” Regan said. “We have leveraged every enforcement tool available to our agency against Norfolk Southern to ensure they complete and pay for extensive cleanup activities. And we have checked their work every step of the way.”

U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) gives an opening statement before the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 9, 2023. In his prepared remarks released ahead of the hearing, Norfolk Southern Chief Executive Alan Shaw said he is “determined to make it right” for the people of East Palestine, Ohio, after a train derailed there last month. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

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“I think what would be meaningful is not for Joe Biden to come and do a press conference or come and do some media availabilities, but would actually be to direct the government to do the things necessary for the people of East Palestine,” Vance said during a press conference in East Palestine Feb. 2.

“We have to get the long-term health screening in place for residents,” Vance said. “This is people who want to move on from this disaster. This is people who are still worried about physical contamination. They want to know with confidence that if 10 years down the road, something happens to their kid, God forbid, or themselves, that they can trace it to this accident or not.”

And, he said, “We’ve got to make sure that we’re getting the economic assistance to East Palestine.”

“You have a lot of people here who are very proud of this community, who love it. They’ve been here for multiple generations, they want to rebuild, but I think sometimes, in some ways, they’re going to need some help.”