Trump criticizes federal response to Ohio train derailment

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Former President Donald Trump speaks at the East Palestine Fire Department as he visits the area in the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern train derailment Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Freed)

EAST PALESTINE, OhioDonald Trump on Wednesday criticized the federal response to the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, as a “betrayal” during a visit to the village where residents and local leaders are increasingly frustrated more than two weeks after the disaster.

The former president, who is mounting a third bid for the White House, wore his trademark red “Make America Great Again” cap as he said the community needs “answers and results,” not excuses.

“In too many cases, your goodness and perseverance were met with indifference and betrayal," Trump said at a firehouse roughly half a mile from where more than three dozen freight cars — including 11 carrying hazardous materials — came off the tracks. The fiery, mangled mess near the Pennsylvania state line apparently followed a mechanical issue with a rail car axle.

Trump appeared with U.S. Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, Mayor Trent Conaway and state and local leaders — and traveled via motorcade — giving the visit the look of an official presidential visit.

The Feb. 3 derailment led to evacuations and fears of air and water contamination after a controlled burning of toxic chemicals aimed at preventing an explosion. The disaster has become the latest front in America’s political divide, with Trump criticizing the federal response and the White House in turn saying Trump could have done more as president to toughen rail and environmental regulations.

The trip offered Trump, who has held few events since he launched his campaign in November, an opportunity to reprise the role he often held as president: surveying disaster damage and meeting with residents following tragic events. He praised the staff of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even as he offered criticism.

He also donated cleaning supplies along with pallets of what he said was Trump-branded bottled water to residents concerned about the water coming out of their taps.

Before leaving town, Trump stopped by a local McDonald’s, where he passed out hats, ordered meals for first responders and picked up food for the plane ride home. He also visited Little Beaver Creek to inspect the damage and greeted supporters assembled nearby to cheer him on.

“Thank you for not forgetting about us,” one woman told him.

“Have fun, everybody,” Trump told them after signing autographs.

Trump, in his remarks at the firehouse, seized on Biden’s decision to make a surprise visit to Ukraine this week, saying he hoped Biden would have "some money left over” for the residents of East Palestine when he returns. Biden, who has yet to come to the Ohio town, was traveling back from Poland on Wednesday after marking the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Biden White House has defended its response to the derailment, saying officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, National Transportation Safety Board and other agencies were at the rural site within hours of the derailment. The White House says it has also offered federal assistance and that FEMA has been coordinating with the state emergency operations center and other partners.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited the site last week to try to reassure skeptical residents that the water was fit for drinking and the air safe to breathe. And shortly before Trump arrived in Ohio, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced he would visit Thursday after also facing criticism for not coming sooner.

Trump took credit for Buttigieg's trip and also criticized FEMA's role in the response, accusing the agency of having “changed their tune” after he announced his own visit to East Palestine.

The White House, however, has said FEMA was involved from the beginning, even as other agencies have taken the lead. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, has said Ohio has received all the resources it needs from the federal government.

DeWine and FEMA announced the same day that Trump’s trip was announced that FEMA would be deploying additional federal resources to the site, but the timing appears to be coincidental. Federal and state officials have also said Norfolk Southern, the train company, will pay the full cost of cleanup and other expenses such as hotel stays.

Biden administration officials called out a decision by the Trump administration to repeal an Obama-era Transportation Department rule that would have requiring “high-hazard” cargo trains hauling large amounts of flammable liquids such as crude oil and ethanol to be equipped with more sophisticated, electronically controlled brakes by 2023.

Buttigieg said this week that the Federal Railroad Administration will look at reviving that brake rule now, though the NTSB noted it couldn’t have helped in this derailment because the train wasn’t considered a “high hazardous flammable train.” Only three of the 20 hazardous materials cars the train was carrying were filled with flammable liquids. Regulators may now look at expanding which trains are covered by the “high hazardous” rules.

Almost three weeks after the derailment, the smell of chemicals that blanketed the village is mostly gone, but some residents close to the tracks say there’s still an odor inside their homes.

The village of just under 5,000 residents is near the Pennsylvania state line in Columbiana County, which has grown increasingly Republican in recent years. Trump won nearly 72% of the vote in the 2020 election, and signs of his popularity remain clear.

At a car dealership in town, where bottled water was being distributed, a photo of Trump leaned against a barricade, reading, “A Hero Will Rise.” Signs and flags around the village broadcast support both for Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate.

Since the derailment, residents have complained about headaches, irritated eyes and other ailments. Thousands of fish have been found dead, and residents have talked about finding dying or sick pets and wildlife. Residents are also frustrated by what they say is incomplete and vague information about the lasting effects from the disaster and have demanded more transparency from Norfolk Southern.

The gas that spilled and burned after the train derailment — vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make hard plastics — is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers.

Environmental officials say that they monitored for toxins in the air during the controlled burn and that continuing air monitoring — including testing inside 550 homes — hasn’t detected dangerous levels in the area since residents were allowed to return.

Residents like Cory Brittian, whose family owns an auto dealership in the center of the village, praised Trump for his visit.

“Any light that can be shined on the situation here, especially with the federal government, can only help,” he said. ___

Associated Press writers Josh Funk in Omaha, Nebraska, and Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.