WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — President Joe Biden on Friday directed federal agencies to go door-to-door in East Palestine, Ohio, to check on families affected by the toxic train derailment that has morphed into a heated political controversy.
Under Biden's order, teams from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency will visit homes in East Palestine to ask how residents are doing, see what they need and connect them with appropriate resources. The “walk teams” are modeled on similar teams following hurricanes and other natural disasters.
Biden did not specify a number of homes to be visited, but directed employees to get to as many as possible by Monday. The president said that at present he has no plans to personally visit.
His order came as House Republicans opened an investigation into the Feb. 3 derailment, blaming Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for what they contend was a delayed response to the fiery wreck.
Rep. James Comer, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, became the latest lawmaker to jump into what has become a political proxy war as each party lays into the other after the derailment and chemical leak that led to evacuation of the small Ohio community.
“Despite the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) responsibility to ensure safe and reliable transport in the United States, you ignored the catastrophe for over a week,” the Kentucky Republican said in a letter to Buttigieg. “The American people deserve answers as to what caused the derailment, and DOT needs to provide an explanation for its leadership’s apathy in the face of this emergency.”
A preliminary report released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board stated that the crew operating the Norfolk Southern freight train didn’t get much warning before dozens of cars went off the tracks and there is no indication that crew members did anything wrong.
Republicans are framing the incident as a moral failing at the hands of the Biden administration, while Democrats are pointing to rollbacks former President Donald Trump made during his term that weakened rail and environmental regulations.
The Oversight letter requests documents and communications concerning when DOT leaders learned of the derailment and whether they received any guidance about what the public response should be, as well any recent changes to agency train maintenance and procedures.
A day earlier, Buttigieg made his first visit to the crash site and hit back at Trump, who had visited the day before and criticized the federal response.
Buttigieg told reporters that if the former president — and current Republican presidential candidate — felt strongly about increased rail safety efforts, “one thing he could do is express support for reversing the deregulation that happened on his watch.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre excoriated “political stunts that we’re seeing from the other side."
Norfolk Southern said the NTSB report showed the train's heat detectors worked as intended and the crew operated “within the company’s rules.” Nevertheless, the company said it would “need to learn as much as we can from this event” and “develop practices and invest in technologies that could help prevent an incident like this in the future.”
The freight cars that derailed on the East Palestine outskirts, near the Pennsylvania state line, included 11 carrying hazardous materials. Residents evacuated as fears grew about a potential explosion of smoldering wreckage.
Officials seeking to avoid an uncontrolled blast released and burned toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars, sending flames and black smoke into the sky. That left people questioning potential health effects, though authorities maintained they were doing their best to protect people.
“This incident is an environmental and public health emergency that now threatens Americans across state lines,” Comer and nearly two dozen Republicans said in their letter to Buttigieg.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also announced that a new hotline has been set-up to help support residents and businesses. The hotline will help provide various services, including air-monitoring, water sampling, intake for scheduling cleaning services. The number is 1 (866)-361-0526.
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this story.