Biden calls Ohio train derailment ‘an act of greed’ as he visits area a year later

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Biden calls Ohio train derailment 'an act of greed' as he visits area a year later © Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the aid package for Ukraine, from the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., February 13, 2024. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Jeff Mason and Nandita Bose

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday called the toxic derailment of a Norfolk Southern (NYSE:) train in East Palestine, Ohio, completely preventable during a visit to the area a year after the incident sparked a health and environmental crisis.

In his first trip since the derailment, Biden toured the site of the accident, which forced residents to abandon their homes. Many people have since suffered from rashes, breathing problems and other ailments.

“While there are acts of God, this was an act of greed that was 100% preventable,” he said. “We were pushing railroads to take more precautions, to deal with braking, to deal with a whole range of things that were not dealt with. Norfolk Southern failed its responsibility.”

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, a conservative who does not support Biden, extended the invitation to visit to the Democratic president, saying it would be good for his community.

“President Biden, your long-awaited visit to our village today allows us to focus on the things we agree with,” Conaway said, listing efforts to address long-term health concerns in the community and economic growth as two of those things.

The president urged Congress to pass a bipartisan bill to toughen rail safety laws and said the federal government would remain active in the community until the cleanup was complete. The bill, advanced by Ohio Senators J.D. Vance, a Republican, and Democrat Sherrod Brown, has stalled.

Republicans and some local residents have criticized Biden for not visiting earlier. Biden’s motorcade passed by protesters in the village; some made crude gestures and one person yelled: “One year too late!”

Biden’s administration says he has been laser-focused on the issue since the derailment.

Norfolk Southern said it knew more work was needed.

“We’re proud of the progress we’ve made toward fully remediating the site, and helping the community recover. But we know there is more work to do. We’ll continue keeping our promises and listening to the community,” Chief Executive Alan Shaw said in a statement.

During a stop at a candle shop in town, Biden sipped from a glass of local tap water and a container of coffee. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan told reporters the agency has been monitoring wells and municipal water and “there were no elevated levels of pollution exposure due to this derailment.”

Former President Donald Trump, expected to be Biden’s 2024 presidential rival, traveled to East Palestine about two weeks after the incident and called the federal response a betrayal. He did not comment on Friday about Biden’s visit.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has yet to submit a final report, has said 38 train cars derailed on Feb. 3, 2023 and a fire damaged another dozen train cars. Residents on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border were ordered to evacuate because of the derailment and release of toxic chemicals.

Norfolk Southern has estimated it will cost the company more than $800 million to clean up the hazardous chemicals, help the community rebuild and respond to lawsuits.

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