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Biden praises 'Herculean efforts' to rebuild at the site of last February's Ohio train derailment

President Joe Biden on Friday surveyed the federal cleanup in East Palestine, Ohio, more than a year after an explosive fire from a derailed train carrying hazardous chemicals, and saw up close the lingering hostility from victims still angry that he waited so long to visit.

The White House has said Biden was waiting for the right moment to visit. The mayor invited him.

Addressing residents, Biden said he wanted them to understand “that we're not going home, no matter what, until this job is done, and it's not done yet," speaking of the federal government. He did not explain why it took more than a year for him to visit, nor did he address the community's collective hurt.

He praised what he said were “Herculean efforts" by the federal, state and local governments to clean up after the derailment and fire and, announced federal grants from the National Institutes of Health to study the short- and long-term effects of what happened and blamed the derailment on greed by the railroad company, Norfolk Southern.

The derailment didn't have to happen, Biden said.

“While there are acts of God, this was an act of greed that was 100% preventable,” Biden said after local officials briefed him on the cleanup and took him to the site of the derailment. “Let me say it again, an act of greed that was 100% preventable.”

Connor Spielmaker, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern, responded without addressing Biden's claims of corporate greed. Spielmaker said the company promised to fix things in East Palestine and “we're keeping our promises.”

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The National Transportation Safety Board said last spring in its preliminary report that the derailment was likely caused by an overheating bearing on one of the railcars.

Biden, in his remarks, also stressed that the federal government is holding Norfolk Southern accountable. He renewed his call for Congress to pass legislation sponsored by Ohio's two U.S. senators that would require stronger protective measures for trains carrying hazardous material.

He also asked Congress to make sure that no one will have to pay federal taxes on any compensation they receive from Norfolk Southern.

Signs of the community's still-hurt feelings were evident. Some people shouted profanity as Biden's motorcade whisked him into town from an earlier stop in Darlington Township, Pennsylvania, where he greeted local officials and first responders. Others held derogatory signs, including one that named the president's late son, Beau, who died of brain cancer.

Biden arrived at the derailment site and saw what resembled a construction site. Rigs, trucks, generators and covered metal tanks resembling above-ground swimming pools dotted the landscape. Local officials, including the mayor, briefed the president.

Mayor Trent Conaway, who does not support Biden, addressed the president, saying, “Your long-awaited visit to our village today allows us to focus on the things we agree with. Acknowledging this disaster should never have happened. Address the long-term health concerns and the economic growth of the village, and ensure this never happens again to another community.”

Afterward, Biden visited a local retailer of fragrant candles. He sipped water and coffee. The owner of the store said the president was buying a candle for his wife, Jill. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week that Biden had “no concerns” about drinking the tap water.

Democrat Biden ventured into Republican territory amid a reelection campaign. Aides said it's a chance for Biden to hear from the community, talk about his efforts to hold Norfolk Southern accountable and push for passage of a rail safety law. A number of administration officials have visited over the past year.

As Biden visited, between 50 and 75 people held a counter rally in support of for former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump won nearly 72% of the vote in Ohio's Columbiana County, which includes East Palestine. He visited several weeks after the derailment.

Mike Young, the rally's coordinator, described the grass-roots event as “anti-Biden.” He said he delivered water to the community after the disaster and the president should have been an immediate presence on the ground.

“The sentiment from residents has been: Where were you a year ago?" Young said. "Too little, too late. And now Biden shows up at election time.”

“Well, I guess better late than never,” said Steven Carpenter, an East Palestine resident who was among those gathering early for Young's rally.

Mark Happel, a construction worker who lives in East Liverpool, Ohio, and plans to vote again for Trump, said communities surrounding East Palestine were in danger from the chemicals and smoke. He said the biggest issue he sees is sickness — people coughing, lung issues and colds.

“East Palestine will bounce back, but the ongoing health issues is everybody's concern,” Happel said.

Trump’s presidential campaign posted a video on X, formerly Twitter, highlighting his visit to East Palestine last year and questioning Biden hadn’t yet traveled there.

The trip marked Biden's first interactions with voters since a special counsel's report last week questioned the 81-year-old president's mental fortitude. East Palestine has emerged as a test of his ability to bridge political divides and publicly show that he's up for the burdens of the presidency.

The EPA engaged in an intense cleanup and says the community's air, water and soil are now safe.

The agency removed more than 176,000 tons of hazardous waste. More than 49 million gallons of water, rainfall and snowmelt were removed or treated. The federal agency is also collecting 2,500 samples to ensure that the cleanup has succeeded.

Norfolk Southern said it has spent roughly $1.1 billion in its response to the derailment. Since the fire began on February 3, 2023, and caused hazardous chemicals to mix, the company says it has invested $103.2 million in the community, including $21 million distributed to residents.

Associated Press video journalist Jessie Wardarski in East Palestine, Ohio, contributed to this report.

Updated: February 16, 2024 at 6:34 PM EST
Updates with Biden blaming the derailment on corporate greed, NTSB preliminary report saying derailment was likely causes by an overheating bearing in one of the railcars, response from Norfolk Southern, East Palestine's mayor welcoming Biden and Biden sipping the tap water and coffee made with it. Adds byline for Darlene Superville.