Biden vows accountability for ‘act of greed’ a year after deadly train derailment in Ohio

President Joe Biden on Friday promised the people of East Palestine, Ohio to keep federal resources and personnel working on mitigating the effects of last year’s deadly train derailment and chemical spill “until the job is done” and “every need is met”.

Mr Biden spoke in the Ohio village, where last year a derailed freight train sparked a fire which spewed a toxic chemical cloud and stoked fears of air and water contamination, just over one year to the day when the Norfolk Southern train jumped its’ tracks and began spilling its’ toxic contents onto the ground.

Flanked by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan and East Palestine mayor Trent Conaway, Mr Biden described being briefed on “herculean” efforts that have been undertaken in the year since the accident.

“It’s absolutely amazing with this community rose to,” he said.

But Mr Biden told the crowd that the federal government was “not going home, no matter what, until the job is done”.

He then added: “It’s not done, yet”.

The president said there was “a lot more” to be done, and promised to keep federal resources in play “until the very end” when “every need is met”.

He also promised that his administration would “continue to hold Norfolk Southern accountable” both “now and in the future,” and said the government would step in to fill any gaps in the railroad’s restitution efforts.

“What they do not make whole, what they cannot make whole, what isn’t made whole, the government will make whole,” said the president, who said the government has “an obligation” to look after the town’s people.

He praised East Palestine residents for their resilience, telling them he could see the tragedy would not define them — and if it did, would do so “in a different way,” with their “courage and resilience,” and the compassion residents have shown for each other.

While the president admitted that some disasters are “acts of God,” he denounced what happened one year ago in East Palestine as an “act of greed” that was “one hundred per cent preventable”.

“We were pushing the railroads to take more precautions, to deal with braking, to deal with a whole range of things that were not dealt with,” he said, adding that Norfolk Southern had “failed its’ responsibility”.

“Multimillion dollar railroad companies transporting toxic chemicals have responsibility to do it safely and …Norfolk Southern failed,” he said.

But the president recounted how his administration took action by dispatching personnel to the site “within hours” to work closely with state and local officials.

He added that his administration “ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up the mess it created and ensure it was done right,” and recalled how water, air, and soil quality testing had begin “within hours” of the accident, as well as teams of health experts and officials to provide emergency loans to local businesses.

Repeating his assertion that the job was “not done yet” in East Palestine, Mr Biden announced six National Institutes of Health grants to enable studies of both short and long term effect of the disaster and keep “top researchers” on the case as long as needed.

The president also called for Congress to pass the bipartisan rail safety bill shepherded by Ohio Senators JD Vance, a Republican and Sherrod Brown, a Democrat.

The bill, he said, would “require stronger protective measures when trains are carrying hazardous waste storage tank cars”.

“We argued about this for years. They should be stronger, they should be able to survive crashes without exploding,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is there was a lot of discussion ahead of time before this occurred, about the safety of the braking systems of many of these railroads trains” and “more staffing on trains, so that there are more people to respond immediately to a crash,” he said. “And to do so much more”.

Mr Biden’s visit comes after months of attacks from Republicans, who have complained that the president’s failure to travel to the disaster site indicated a disdain for the people living in the area, which voted overwhelmingly for Mr Biden’s opponent in the 2020 election.

But the White House has repeatedly stressed that Mr Biden had acted within hours of the derailment to “mobilise a comprehensive, whole-of-government response to support the people of East Palestine nearby affected communities” after the 3 February 2023 wreck, which caused 38 cars of the 150-car train that was en route from Madison, Illinois to Conway, Pennsylvania to jump the track.

Following the derailment, a fire began, and because the train was carrying flammable materials including toxic vinyl chloride, authorities started a controlled burn of some of the spilled material rather than risk what would have been a catastrophic explosion.

Railroad and emergency personnel released cargo from five tanker trucks, diverted the liquid to a trench, and set it ablaze. In the wake of the derailment and controlled burn, Environmental Protection Agency officials said vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ethers were released into the air, soil and water, though the agency later said it had not detected such chemicals at “levels of concern” several days after the incident.

At the time, Mr Biden said he would not visit the disaster site until an appropriate time, citing the logistical hurdles in arranging presidential travel and the need to prioritise resources for the disaster response.

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