Politics Invade the East Palestine, Ohio, Train Crisis
To Democrats, the train derailment and chemical leak in the hamlet of East Palestine, Ohio, is a story of logic, action and consequences: Rail safety regulations put in place by the Obama administration were intended to prevent just such accidents. The Trump administration gutted them.
To Republicans, East Palestine is a symbol of something far larger and more emotional: a forgotten town in a conservative state, like so many others in Middle America, struggling for survival against an uncaring mega-corporation and an unseeing government whose concerns have never included the likes of a town of 4,718 souls.
Carrying those irreconcilable narratives, politicians have begun parading through East Palestine with their own agendas to pursue. On Wednesday, it was the former president and current presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump, handing out branded water and campaign hats, while assuring the supportive crowd, “You are not forgotten.”
On Thursday, three weeks after 38 Norfolk Southern rail cars carrying toxic chemicals skipped the tracks in East Palestine and, days later, a plume of vinyl chloride was intentionally released over the town, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg arrived, having spent days jousting with Republicans over safety regulations.
“What I’m really proud of is the community that I saw here,” he told a retinue of right-wing reporters shouting questions at him. “You’ve got federal agencies, you’ve got local first responders, you’ve got states, but most of all you’ve got a community that’s been through a lot, that I think is pretty frustrated with people trying to take political advantage of this situation.”
In some sense, both sides are right, both sides are wrong and, in the bifurcated politics of this American moment, none of the arguments much matter.
In 2015, after the deadly derailment of an Amtrak train traveling too fast outside Philadelphia, President Barack Obama moved to mandate the installation of lifesaving automatic braking technology by 2023 over the protests of the largest rail companies. In 2018, as part of a broad regulatory rollback, Mr. Trump repealed the rule.
But, according to the website PolitiFact, the rule would have had no impact on the East Palestine derailment. The Norfolk Southern train would not have been covered because it would not have been categorized as a high-hazard cargo train. Besides, the National Transportation Safety Board initially pointed to the failure of a wheel bearing, not the train’s speed, as the cause of the derailment.
Such details did not stop the White House from issuing a formal statement on Wednesday with the headline, “Republicans, stop dismantling rail safety and selling out communities like East Palestine to the rail lobby.” Nor did it dissuade the anti-Trump Lincoln Project from releasing a video on Wednesday squarely blaming the former president.
The Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio
When a freight train derailed in Ohio on Feb. 3, it set off evacuation orders, a toxic chemical scare and a federal investigation.
Union officials blamed years of cost-cutting and staff reductions for a spate of derailments, a message whose utility to President Biden was undercut by his intervention last year in a rail labor dispute that averted a strike but undermined union efforts to improve work conditions.
Still, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, called the accident “100 percent preventable” at a news conference on Thursday in Washington.
“I don’t understand why this has gotten so political — this is a community that is suffering,” she added.
Republicans have simply ignored that debate, instead pressing the seemingly contradictory cases that the Biden administration cares more about Ukraine than East Palestine and that the White House concocted the downing of three unidentified flying objects to distract attention from the derailment — which would imply that, in fact, officials care a lot.
The derailment’s aftermath coincided with Mr. Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine — by rail — and his speech in Poland, in which he pledged billions of dollars more in military support for Ukraine. That fed the Republican narrative that, for all his talk of caring for blue-collar workers, the president would rather deal with geopolitics than a domestic problem.
Neglect and the late arrival of assistance became the dominant talking points about Eastern Ohio on Fox News and in an array of other conservative news outlets, even as the Biden administration said repeatedly that federal officials had arrived on the scene of the accident within hours.
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And in Columbiana County, where East Palestine sits, Republicans have been playing on their home field. Mr. Trump won the county with 72 percent of the vote in 2020, against Mr. Biden’s 27 percent.
“On Presidents’ Day in our country, he is over in Ukraine,” Mayor Trent Conaway of East Palestine fumed this week. “That tells you what kind of guy he is.”
Conspiracy theories have only deepened the trauma, bouncing around far-right podcasts and conservative celebrities’ social media accounts before reaching Congress via Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the once-fringe Republican from Georgia whose alliance with Speaker Kevin McCarthy has brought her to the center of congressional power.
“East Palestine, Ohio, is undergoing an ecological disaster because authorities blew up the train derailment cars carrying hazardous chemicals and press are being arrested for trying to tell the story,” she wrote on Twitter over dramatic footage of the fiery plume and its aftermath. “Oh but UFO’s!”
The Trump campaign on Thursday abetted the narrative with a day-by-day timeline of “Neglect and Betrayal,” including “Feb 5: Shoots the spy balloon down” and “Feb 13: Dodges questions about unidentified objects downed on Sunday,” followed by, “Feb 16: Delivered a response to unidentified objects in the sky and screened the movie ‘Till.’”
Batting down another conspiratorial rumor, the East Palestine fire chief, Keith Drabick, had to spend time this week assuring people that medical identification bracelets being passed out to residents in case they showed signs of debilitation were not tracking devices for the government.
The fever pitch of distrust was understandable for a community that saw what appeared to be an apocalyptic plume of chemicals rise from the wreckage on the rail line, then filmed dead fish and frogs in East Palestine’s streams and complained of headaches, sore throats, coughing and skin rashes — all as government officials assured them the air and water were safe.
But if East Palestine felt ignored in the immediate aftermath of the derailment, its travails are now playing out on a vast national tableau of partisan politics.
The environmental activist Erin Brockovich is planning a town hall event on Friday at the town high school. Tulsi Gabbard, the former Democratic congresswoman-turned-conservative-gadfly, took a spin through the town earlier in the week, then rushed to the television cameras to describe it.
The Fox News anchor Bret Baier did concede that visits to train derailments by transportation secretaries, including Mr. Trump’s, Elaine Chao, were rare, especially when the accidents did not cause fatalities.
But more broadly, the derailment has been a chance for Republicans and their supporters in the conservative news media to showcase the white, working-class voters who flocked to Mr. Trump, and whom Mr. Biden has struggled to win back — and the power that Mr. Trump and other celebrities who remain in his orbit still hold in places like East Palestine.
After Mr. Trump on Wednesday praised John Rourke, the owner of the Florida-based company Blue Line Moving, for his relief efforts in Ohio, Tucker Carlson invited Mr. Rourke onto his top-rated cable news show to let him rip into the current president.
“The fact that President Biden has refused to come to this small town when he’s supposed to be Scranton Joe, a small-town hero of the working man, and he can’t even show his face in a town of American citizens that need his leadership, that need the government’s help terribly, he proved what everybody, I think, already knew in this country, is that he’s not the leader for this country,” Mr. Rourke said Wednesday night. “Donald J. Trump is the leader that we all know he is, and he is the leader of this country.”
On Thursday, Mr. Buttigieg showed up after weeks of Republican taunts demanding to know why he had not bothered. But it was Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Trump confidant, who garnered much of the attention from residents and local politicians as he toured the accident site and signed memorabilia.
“Politicians come in and they make a big show and then they don’t come back,” he said, promising, “This is a come-back situation.”
Mark Walker and Aishvarya Kavi contributed reporting.