Well over two months have passed since a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, less than a mile from Pennsylvania’s border, and President Joe Biden hasn’t visited affected communities in either state. Pennsylvania lawmakers are urging him to do so. 

Six weeks ago Biden said he would “be out there at some point.” The White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether he has yet scheduled a visit. (Biden’s Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg first went to the site more than two weeks after the derailment.)

The incident has been a source of environmental and health concerns after Norfolk Southern responded to the wreck by venting and incinerating five cars containing hazardous vinyl chloride, causing massive chemical discharge into the air. Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro (D) initially supported the vent-and-burn strategy but later reversed himself, stating that the rail company originally said it planned to burn only one car. 

In the ensuing weeks, reports abounded of residents experiencing medical problems including rashes, migraines and nausea that they ascribed to emissions from the train. As early as late February, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated that over 43,000 aquatic animals died in the accident’s aftermath while some residents reported unexpected domestic animal deaths. 

While government agencies have indicated their testing hasn’t yet shown increased water or soil toxicity, seven researchers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fell ill after working onsite. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Acting Secretary Richard Negrin has meanwhile acknowledged that groundwater “takes a lot longer than just a few weeks” to show contamination.

State Representative Aaron Bernstine (R-PA-Ellwood City) said Biden ought to soon make his promised visit to the area to get a firsthand perspective on these matters. Bernstine represents several Lawrence County communities including Enon Valley and New Beaver, the latter of which sits just three miles from East Palestine. 

“I would encourage the president to come and visit the folks in our region and in my district in particular who have been negatively impacted by the Norfolk Southern derailment,” he told The Pennsylvania Daily Star. “While the president has failed to show leadership during basically his entire time in office, I was hopeful that he would take this opportunity to step up and come and meet with people who have had the negative consequences of the situation that’s under the authority of the federal government and disappointed that he hasn’t done so.”

Bernstine said ensuring ongoing private well water testing will remain an urgent matter for him going forward because chemical diffusion into wells can occur gradually. 

U.S. Representative Mike Kelly (R-PA-16), whose district includes Lawrence County, visited  the area twice in the first month after the accident and also asks the president to come to the region. Kelly has furthermore complained about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drawing a mere one-mile radius around the wreck site to determine who can get priority assistance for well water, air and soil testing. He is exhorting the agency to expand the radius to include parts of his district.

“The people of Western Pennsylvania still have questions about the future safety of their soil and water,” Kelly spokesperson Matt Knoedler wrote in an email. “More than two months after the derailment, it’s disappointing to see President Biden still has not visited East Palestine and Western Pennsylvania to see the lasting impacts of the derailment for himself. Representative Kelly will continue to monitor the situation and meet with Pennsylvanians who have been impacted. We strongly encourage President Biden to join us in those efforts.”

Lawrence County Commissioners Chairman Dan Vogler (R) also said he would like the president to make his yet unscheduled trip to the area. He suggested that East Palestine itself should get Biden’s initial attention but added that the president would ideally proceed to see affected communities in the Keystone State. 

“As someone in the region, I’d certainly welcome a visit from the president…,” he said. “It makes sense that if he were to come out this way, he’d need to focus on the folks in Ohio first.  And then certainly if time would permit, we’d love to see him over here as well.” 

Bernstine noted that the state departments of health, agriculture and environmental protection continue to operate a resource center at the Darlington Township Building at 3590 Darlington Road, which is reachable by phone at 724-827-8738. The representative said he encourages residents to report any problems they are experiencing to that facility. According to a statement from the Department of Health, agency staffers are at the office every Thursday from noon to 5 p.m. to meet with residents.

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Joe Biden” by The White House. Background Photo “Environmental Protection Agency in East Palestine, Ohio” by EPA Great Lakes.