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Biden vows to continue to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

Biden visits site of Ohio train derailment
Biden says Ohio train derailment was "100% preventable" in visit to disaster site 02:31

Washington — President Biden visited East Palestine, Ohio, on Friday, just over a year after a freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in the small village near the Pennsylvania state line, and he vowed to hold the railway company Norfolk Southern accountable. 

"There are acts of God," Mr. Biden said. "This was an act of greed that was 100% preventable." 

Mr. Biden received a briefing from local officials on the recovery efforts and continued response in the aftermath of the derailment and hazardous chemical fire involving a 9,300-foot train with about 150 cars in February 2023. The derailment sparked serious health and environmental concerns for residents, who have expressed frustration over the federal government's response to the crisis.

"I want to continue to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, make sure they make your community whole, now and in the future. And what they do not make whole, what they cannot make whole, what isn't made [whole], the government will make whole. We have an obligation," Mr. Biden said. 

President Joe Biden meets with workers in East Palestine, Ohio
President Joe Biden receives an operational briefing from officials on the continuing response and recovery efforts at the site of a train derailment which spilled hazardous chemicals a year ago in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 16, 2024. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

East Palestine residents' health concerns 

Among the hazardous materials aboard the Norfolk Southern train was vinyl chloride, a substance used to make a variety of plastic products. Crews worked to vent and burn off rail cars carrying the vinyl chloride, which has been associated with an increased risk of various cancers and neurological symptoms, to prevent an explosion. 

And although hundreds of residents were evacuated during the vent and burn, some of the residents who had evacuated returned and then started getting symptoms, such as rashes and respiratory problems. A year later, some say they're still suffering health issues

Toxic Fog: The Aftermath in East Palestine, Ohio | CBS Reports 21:38

The president announced six National Institutes of Health grants would fund the study of the short- and long-term impacts of the disaster. 

Criticism for delayed visit 

Mr. Biden's visit, which came at the invitation of Mayor Trent Conaway, comes after he received criticism for not having visited East Palestine until now. Although the administration has noted that officials were on the ground within hours of the derailment, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg likewise drew ire from Republicans for not visiting until nearly three weeks after the crash. 

In his remarks after meeting with local leaders, Mr. Biden said there's still a lot of work to do in East Palestine, "but we're going to stay until the very end." But the visit still spurred criticism for coming a year after the derailment occurred. 

"Well, obviously we wish he would have came a little bit sooner, but, hey, he's here now and we can use all the help we can get right now. And we did put in for state of emergency and it hasn't passed yet and I don't really know all the details of that, but like I said, any help we can get, we would really appreciate," local resident Christina Dilworth told CBS Pittsburgh station KDKA-TV.

Former President Donald Trump, who visited the village weeks after the derailment, called it an "insult" for Mr. Biden to visit East Palestine a year after the incident. 

"It was such a great honor to be with the people of East Palestine immediately after the tragic event took place," Trump said in a social media post on Wednesday, adding that "Biden should have gone there a long time ago."

During the president's visit, Mr. Biden said he was briefed on the "herculean efforts" of the last year, and pushed back on criticism that his visit to East Palestine comes too late — a year after the derailment occurred. 

"My administration was on the ground within hours working closely with the governor, the mayor, the senators and House members, community leaders, to make sure you have everything you need," Mr. Biden said. "My administration ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up the mess it created and ensure it was done right." 

Derailment became a political flashpoint 

The derailment became a political flashpoint in the days and months following the crash, as Republicans bashed the White House for its response. But the administration has repeatedly made clear that Mr. Biden has been working in coordination with local officials since the incident.

"I've spoken with every official in Ohio, Democrat and Republican, on a continuing basis, as in Pennsylvania," Mr. Biden told reporters in March, when he said he would "be out there at some point."

Addressing rail safety

The president also called on Congress to take action on rail safety during his visit. A bipartisan rail safety bill that arose in the aftermath of the derailment has been long-delayed in the Senate, where it's unclear if enough Republican support exists for the measure to clear a filibuster. 

"When trains are carrying hazardous waste, storage tank cars — we argued about this for years — they should be stronger, they should be able to survive crashes without exploding," Mr. Biden said. 

He said brakes should "meet higher safety standards" and there should be more staffing on trains. 

There were 312 hazardous materials incidents on the nation's rails in 2023, down from 368 in 2022, 636 a decade ago in 2013 and 1,057 in 2000, according to a CBS News analysis of Department of Transportation data. The cost of such incidents was $63.6 million in 2023, compared with $23.9 million in 2022, $22.6 million a decade ago in 2013 and $26.5 million in 2000.

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Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, tells CBS News the agency has made hundreds of recommendations that can be taken to improve rail safety, but that rail companies and Congress have yet to move on.

"We're going to issue safety recommendations that I hope are implemented immediately, whether it's through a congressional action, regulatory action, or operator action," Homendy said. "But then there's rail safety generally. We have issued many rail safety recommendations that could be implemented today, that Congress could take action on, and I hope they do. For example, we have 190 open rail safety recommendations that we've issued with no action on it right now."

–CBS News' Roxana Saberi, John Kelly and Nick Devlin contributed to this report.

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