The Federal Response to East Palestine’s Train Disaster Is Itself a Disaster

East Palestine, Ohio’s recent train derailment produced an apocalyptic plume of carcinogenic smoke that may affect residents and the environment for decades. Residents need an aggressive federal response from Joe Biden. They aren’t getting one.

Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4, 2023. (Dustin Franz / AFP via Getty Images)

Two years in, it might be easy to forget the Joe Biden presidency was first sold as a bold experiment in refashioning Americans’ relationship to government.

Addressing Congress for the first time as president in 2021, Biden “embraced government as the solution” and even as “an organizing principle for the nation’s democracy,” the Associated Press said, while the New York Times argued his now-abandoned domestic agenda represented “a fundamental reorientation of the role of government not seen since” the New Deal era. He was even trying to “reshape [the] role of US capitalism,” the Hill said. It was a framing Biden himself embraced, telling Congress defending US democracy meant proving “our government still works” and laying out a plan for “restor[ing] people’s faith in our government to come through when it matters most.”

If Biden and his team ever genuinely meant any of this, then the ongoing disaster in East Palestine suggests they’ve either given up on this goal or utterly failed at meeting it. Twelve days after a train carrying dangerous chemicals derailed and ignited in the Ohio town, leaking toxic chemicals into its surroundings that have left locals with physical symptoms and a trail of dead or sick animals in the area, the White House has said very little publicly about the incident and Biden has said nothing. It took transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg ten days to weigh in, assuring Twitter users he “continue[s] to be concerned about the impacts” of the derailment.

But Buttigieg has said nothing about restoring the rail safety rule that one former federal safety official told Congress would have made the derailment less severe — and that railroad companies worked to abolish under Donald Trump, despite warnings it could lead to disaster. The White House is also parrying questions about reinstating it. Both Buttigieg and the federal government in general seem deaf to statements across the political spectrum calling for a “Congressional inquiry and direct action” over the disaster and raising concerns about the government response so far.

Those concerns are well founded. The government seems to have outsourced the response and cleanup to Norfolk Southern, the company responsible for the disaster, whose policy has frustrated and confused locals. That includes the company’s decision to do a “controlled burning” to release the chemicals, leading to a black plume of smoke continuously belching carcinogens into the air, whose effects one hazardous materials expert warned may take years or even decades to be felt. That same expert criticized as backwards the decision to offer residents safety testing for their homes after telling them they could go back.

Questions are similarly being raised about how swiftly state and federal officials told residents the air and water were safe, and the decision to encourage people to return to their homes after a limited evacuation of 1,500 to 2,000 local residents. Not only did the Environmental Protection Agency later reveal that the train was transporting additional chemicals no one knew about that may have been released in the derailment, but those who returned soon found themselves walking into what looks, feels, smells, and tastes like a contaminated zone, with residents coming back to find dead animals and reporting nasty symptoms like burning eyes, nausea, and coughing fits. One resident who refuses to go back told Status Coup’s Jordan Chariton how her asthmatic nine-year-old started projectile vomiting and broke out in a rash. Meanwhile locals have lodged widespread complaints that they’re not being given clear guidance and that information is being withheld from them.

What could the federal government have done and still do? It could have financially underwritten an evacuation, not just for East Palestine residents but for those of nearby towns who are affected, making sure those leaving had a roof over their head and an income until it was definitively safe to go back. This would have ensured that the residents didn’t have to rely on a confusing, Byzantine process to get $1,000 from Norfolk Southern — a paltry sum not every resident even “qualifies” for, it turns out.

The federal government could have paid for medical treatment for those affected and their pets, rather than leaving them on the hook for large medical bills or forcing them to put beloved animals to sleep. It could have organized emergency workers to collect, clean, and transport people’s property, so residents are not forced into the danger of having to return and get that property themselves. It could reinstate Obama-era railroad regulations and move to beef up safety in the industry so something like this doesn’t happen again. It could send the president to an evacuation zone to reassure scared, confused locals and give them a shoulder to cry on, something we’re told over and over is one of the president’s strengths.

I just came up with this list off the top of my head. Imagine what an entire bureaucracy of federal workers well versed in emergency response could come up with.

Even a couple of these measures would go a long way toward fulfilling Biden’s goal of proving to the US public and the world that democracy still works, because the government could play a positive, constructive role in Americans’ lives when they needed it most. Instead, the days keep ticking, and the president and his government seem determined to largely leave East Palestine residents to deal with the fallout from this gigantic burning cloud of toxins without the strong, public aid of the federal government.