'It's all a bunch of whodunit': East Palestine caught in politics of Ohio train derailment
Weeks after a train derailed in East Palestine, raising concerns about the safety of the air and water, residents find themselves caught in the middle.
The middle of a fight between Democrats and Republicans over how President Joe Biden's administration responded; a debate over rules that govern the railroad industry; and questions over what comes next for the small village near the Pennsylvania border.
As politicians and other high-profile figures paraded through the community last week, people grasped for solutions and hoped for a return to normal. Mayor Trent Conaway said residents simply want to feel safe in their homes again.
And they don't want to be pawns on a political chessboard.
But politics is often unavoidable after a catastrophe like the one that struck East Palestine on Feb. 3. A Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in the village after a wheel bearing overheated and failed, according to preliminary findings from the National Transportation Safety Board.
After the train went off the tracks, a fire broke out. Chemicals spilled into the air, water and soil. Residents evacuated as the company executed a controlled release of vinyl chloride to prevent an explosion. Now, people are back home and worried about long-term health consequences, even as officials say the air and municipal water are safe.
It didn't take long for the finger-pointing to begin.
“I just think now it’s a competition about who has come here, who hasn’t," said Melissa Smith, owner of 1820 Candle Co. in East Palestine. "We personally don’t want to be political. We want it to be about healing our community and cleaning this up."
Republicans accused the Biden administration of ignoring the derailment and focusing instead on other issues, such as the war in Ukraine. They blasted U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for failing to publicly address the incident right away, and at least one U.S. House committee plans to investigate his response. Former President Donald Trump, who stopped in the village last week, called the federal response a "betrayal."
Some also questioned why the derailment wasn't considered a disaster eligible for relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The White House has defended its response, noting that the Department of Transportation and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency immediately had teams on site. Biden offered assistance to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro as soon as Feb. 6. Over the weekend, federal officials went door-to-door in East Palestine to check on residents.
At the same time, Democrats did their own share of blaming.
The White House faulted the Trump administration for rolling back railroad regulations, including proposals to require at least two crew members on freight trains and equip high-hazard flammable trains with electronically controlled brakes. The administration also pointed to proposed GOP cuts to the EPA, including the elimination of its Surface Water Protection Program.
More:Trains are becoming less safe. Why the Ohio derailment disaster could happen more often
However, some of those policies aren't a factor in the East Palestine derailment. The Norfolk Southern train wasn't a high-hazardous flammable train, so even if the rule was in place, the company wouldn't have been required to install those brakes. The train also had three crew members on board.
Smith said she noticed a change in tone when Trump and Buttigieg visited the village last week. While some residents are grateful for the attention on their community's plight, others fear there's more bickering and less accountability at play.
“They’re trying to pit people against each other,” said Sidney Smith, Melissa's daughter.
During an informational meeting with environmental activist Erin Brockovich, Texas attorney Mikal Watts offered some advice to residents: Stay away from the politics.
"It’s all a bunch of whodunit, and I’m here to tell you that it’s really easy to get misled during this political war game going on while you’re stuck in the middle," Watts said.
Some state and federal officials have started to turn their attention to solutions as the NTSB probe continues. The Ohio Senate created a special committee to hold hearings on the derailment. U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance called for relief for East Palestine modeled after the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided assistance to businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I feel that everyone is coming together and really trying to help us," said Lisa Fulton, who lives near the site of the derailment.
Melissa Smith hopes it stays that way.
“We’re hoping everybody’s on the same page,” she said. “From the top down, we want the focus to be on our community and what we need and not be about political agendas."
Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.