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East Palestine derailment has now become the subject of political battle

Republicans are calling for the Biden administration to be more involved in the aftermath of a train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio.
Posted at 7:22 AM, Feb 22, 2023

An Ohio community reeling from the toxic train disaster threatening their health now finds itself at the center of a political battle intensifying this week with President Joe Biden traveling overseas.

The criticisms have come most loudly from Republicans who feel Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and President Biden should go to the crash site.

"This was an area of the state of Ohio that voted massively for President Trump, not a community that they necessarily care about," Riley Moore, Republican congressional candidate for West Virginia, said on "Fox and Friends."

"A lot of people in Ohio are wondering why Joe Biden spent so much effort to secretly go to Ukraine when he could have publicly gone to East Palestine," said Mark Weaver, crisis communications consultant and former deputy attorney general of Ohio.

But members of the president's own party have also criticized the federal response. 

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who has broken with the administration on major issues, said in a statement last week, "It is unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up."

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has defended its handling of the situation.

"We are committed to supporting the people of Palestine every step of the way, and we are going to be on the ground helping them as long as it's needed," said Karine Jean-Pierre, White House press secretary.

"The federal government will be here for as long as it takes," said Michael S. Regan, EPA administrator. "The president has called the governor and offered the federal assistance that he needs, and I trust that the governor will accept that offer. And we will be here as long as it takes."

Former president and candidate Donald Trump is latching on to the outcry, making a visit to East Palestine Wednesday.

"Someone who's running for office tends to do things to help their political prospects," Weaver said. "I think we can guess that's what former President Trump is doing, feels like more of a distraction to me than anything else."

But leaders in Ohio and neighboring Pennsylvania have found some room for bipartisanship. Ohio's Republican Gov. Mike Dewine and Pennsylvania's Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro held a joint event Tuesday. And Ohio's Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican Sen. JD Vance sent a joint letter last week to the EPA requesting more toxicity testing.

Weaver, a Republican who has advised numerous political candidates, says the Biden administration missed an opportunity to coordinate a fast federal response, but the blame for the incident still falls squarely on train operator Norfolk Southern.

"Right now people in East Palestine and people in eastern Ohio just want to see a coordinated federal response," Weaver said.