Ohio’s toxic spill is unleashing poisonous, partisan politics

Stephen Collinson, CNN

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the East Palestine Fire Department on February 22, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at the East Palestine Fire Department on February 22, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio. (Michael Swensen/Getty Images)

CNN — The people of East Palestine, Ohio, just want help, truth and accountability after a freight train wreck smothered their town with a toxic cloud and left them afraid to drink the water.

“I don’t feel safe, because I don’t know what the future holds for my town,” said lifelong East Palestine resident Jessica Conard during a Wednesday evening CNN town hall. Her comment encapsulated a remarkable and pervasive feeling of mistrust among residents toward assurances by state and federal officials that their air and water are safe.

“This has the potential to really decimate a small town like us,” Conard added.

A massive clean-up is underway, officials are testing local water systems, wells, streams and creeks, and multiple investigations are beginning.

But these Ohioans in the epicenter of an environmental crisis, which suddenly arrived on their doorsteps on February 3, are also becoming political extras on an early stage for GOP White House candidates like former President Donald Trump.

Whenever disaster strikes in divided America, toxic politics isn’t far behind, and derailments – like hurricanes, industrial accidents and transportation meltdowns – come with a political scorecard that adversaries leverage to try to damage those in power.

Republicans are using the derailment to claim that while President Joe Biden is lavishing billions on Ukrainians he visited in a daring trip to wartime Kyiv this week, he is neglecting needy Americans back home.

“You are not forgotten,” Trump said after traveling to East Palestine on Wednesday – although lacking the power of his former office, he has more capacity to boost his slow-moving 2024 campaign than to fix the disaster.

The train wreck is also a fresh hazard for a Democratic rising star, Pete Buttigieg. The former presidential Democratic candidate’s role as Transportation secretary offers a valuable platform ahead of possible future campaigns. But it also carries the risk of a political blow every time something goes wrong with America’s accident-prone infrastructure. Buttigieg, who is headed to Ohio Thursday, admits he could have spoken out about East Palestine sooner and has promised to learn his lesson. He’ll now travel there the same day a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report into the causes of the derailment is set to be released.

Republicans sense vulnerability. “He is an incompetent who is focused solely on his fantasies about his political future & needs to be fired,” tweeted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who, like Buttigieg, might also have another White House race in his future.

The Ohio disaster is also allowing the public a glimpse into the rarely seen Washington duel between regulators and freight firms, which has huge implications for keeping Americans safe as vast trains – some as long as 150 cars, some carrying poisonous chemicals – rumble through towns and cities. Trump might be posing as a savior now, but he presided over a slashing of environmental and safety regulations in office. Huge transportation firms, meanwhile, pay lobbyists millions of dollars to loosen safety rules and staffing levels as they seek to maximize profits, even while rewarding shareholders and scrimping on safety.

Still, perhaps the consequences of the derailment could unlock unusual coalitions in Washington. Conservative Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and progressive Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota are both demanding reforms, for instance. But in Washington, expectations of bipartisan action after a catastrophe often wane as time passes.

Mistrust in local, state and federal leaders is rampant

Given the political hypocrisy on show, the sometimes slow-moving machinery of a government disaster response, and the complex layers of federal, state and local responsibility, it’s no wonder residents question whether they are being heard.

Their concerns are only exacerbated by the fact that hazardous smoke that rose over their homes followed a controlled burn of several wagons containing chemicals, which was ordered by officials to forestall an even worse disaster – a massive explosion.

Residents of the town of 5,000 people complained of medical conditions like rashes, sore throats, bloody noses and other ailments and found thousands of dead fish in creeks. Locals want quicker action from state and federal leaders, question officials’ assurances their water was safe and feel overpowered by Norfolk Southern, the multi-billion dollar railroad firm that was responsible for the train that derailed.

A response that some saw as sluggish has ramped up. The Biden administration is now forcing Norfolk Southern to pay for the clean-up operation and to compensate the government for its expenses.

Yet many townspeople mistrust officials who tell them they are in no danger, contrasting the evidence of their own senses with what they are being told.

Trump leaps at a political opening

One person’s plea for help is another’s political opening.

Trump may have brought some comfort to people in a region that voted for him overwhelmingly with his visit on Wednesday, but it was still a partisan political play.

“I sincerely hope that when your representatives and all of the politicians get here, including Biden, they get back from touring Ukraine, that he’s got some money left over,” Trump said in East Palestine, in Columbiana County, which he won with 72% of the vote over the current president in the 2020 election.

“We stayed with you, we pray for you and we will stay with you,” Trump said, despite having no capacity to direct the government response. His attack on Biden did, however, underscore his “America First” mantra.

In response, Biden tweeted about the disaster while in Europe, blaming his predecessor’s administration for making it harder to implement rail safety measures and telling residents, “We’ve got your back.”

Trump pledged bottled water sourced from his hotels and bought burgers for firefighters in a local McDonald’s as he adopted the trappings of a presidential post-disaster visit to polish his own political profile. He boasted how he had deployed the Federal Emergency Management Agency – which is currently operating in East Palestine – during his presidency. He didn’t mention his own criticized disaster mismanagement, however, after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017 or during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Trump sidestepped a question over his role in weakening safety standards after he repealed an Obama administration rule requiring freight railroads to employ electronically controlled pneumatic brakes on certain trains hauling hazardous and flammable cargos. The measure wouldn’t have stopped the East Palestine disaster since the train that derailed there didn’t have sufficient cars of such a type that would have triggered the rule had it still been in force. But critics have charged that Trump’s slashing of such rules and his elimination of regulations across the board made railroads and Americans less safe.

Other current and potential Republican presidential candidates rushed to catch up with Trump. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley asked whether Biden shouldn’t be “with those people in Ohio.” Haley’s attack seemed inconsistent with her vow to be tougher than Biden on Russian President Vladimir Putin. After all, the president traveled to Europe around the anniversary of the Russian invasion to warn Putin would never win the war. And former Vice President Mike Pence, who might also run in 2024, said he was “glad” that Biden went to Ukraine “but he should have gone to East Palestine first.”

Buttigieg navigates another tough political spot

Given his political profile, Buttigieg is one of the most famous Transportation secretaries in modern history. He’s been thrust into the spotlight during travel meltdowns in the aviation industry – during weather-related shutdowns and during the chaos triggered by Southwest’s scheduling nightmare last year.

Republicans blame the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor for every transportation mess. In response, he has positioned himself as the champion of the victims. In the case of the Ohio train wreck, for example, he wrote this week to Alan Shaw, the head of Norfolk Southern, bemoaning the way the derailment had “upended the lives of numerous residents.”

“The people of East Palestine cannot be forgotten, nor can they be simply considered the cost of doing business,” Buttigieg wrote in the letter, which was clearly designed for an audience wider than Shaw.

Buttigieg also admitted Wednesday that he “could have spoken out sooner” regarding the derailment.

“I was focused on just making sure that our folks on the ground were all set but could have spoken sooner about how strongly I felt about this incident and that’s a lesson learned for me,” Buttigieg said on CBS News’ “Red & Blue.”

Buttigieg said he had been “respecting the role that the independent NTSB plays and staying out of their way” but vowed to be “focused on action, not on politics, not on show” when he visits East Palestine.

Now that Biden is back on US soil, the odds of him making his own visit – to empathize with townspeople and to show he’s on top of the response – must be rising. Such trips are often about perception. But the presence of a commander in chief does galvanize the government like nothing else and assure those hit by disasters that they are not forgotten.

One thing is certain, however: if he does go, Trump will claim credit.