The head of the Environmental Protection Agency promised Thursday that the Biden administration would "get to the bottom" of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, this month that resulted in a fire and a toxic chemical spill affecting residents and wildlife for miles.
In a visit to East Palestine, Administrator Michael Regan addressed concerns over the Biden administration's response to the disaster.
“The community has questions, and we hear you, we see you and we will get to the bottom of this,” Regan said at a joint news conference with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and other officials. “As Gov. [Mike] DeWine and I discussed last night, we are going to get through this as a team, and we are absolutely going to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, and I can promise you that."
Regan said air monitoring has not shown any quality issues from the incident and urged residents to use bottled water if their private wells have not been tested.
Brown, a Democrat, and the state's Republican senator, JD Vance, urged the Biden administration and DeWine to take more action in response to the situation.
"The important thing to me, as the administrator said, is that we hold Norfolk Southern accountable," Brown said. "That means accountable for the tests for people to move back in” and “accountable for all the clean-up that would take weeks to assure people" that the air and water are safe.
Brown added that he has been working with the White House, the National Transportation Safety Board and other federal agencies to help coordinate the response.
Earlier Thursday, Brown sent a letter to DeWine demanding that he issue a disaster declaration in East Palestine and seek more assistance from the federal government to respond to “this unprecedented disaster.”
“A man-made disaster of this scale, scope, and significance necessitates a response and deployment of resources that are commensurate in scale and scope," Brown wrote. "I’m grateful for all that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ohio Emergency Management Agency, local fire fighters, and local law enforcement have done to respond to this unprecedented disaster, but it’s critical we act quickly to supplement those efforts.”
“Additional federal resources can and should play a critical role in helping our fellow Ohioans get back on their feet and ensure that their community is a safe place to live, work, and raise a family,” he added.
At a separate news conference Thursday morning, Vance criticized the Biden administration while stressing that rail operator Norfolk Southern needs to be held accountable.
Vance expressed frustration over what he characterized as “feet dragging” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about questions over water quality for residents affected by the derailment.
Asked whether he has a message for Biden, Vance said he has not spoken with the president but would tell him that the Transportation Department needs to take more action and needs to “stop blaming” former President Donald Trump for having contributed to a regulatory environment that led to the accident.
Multiple Republican lawmakers have called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to resign after the derailment.
“Secretary Buttigieg refused to acknowledge the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, until his intentional ignorance was no longer tenable,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida wrote in letter Thursday urging Biden to request Buttigieg’s resignation. “Even after acknowledging the tragedy, he continues to deflect any accountability for the safety of our nation’s rail system. The circumstances leading up to the derailment point to a clear lack of oversight and demand engagement by our nation’s top transportation official.”
Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri also called for Buttigieg to resign on Thursday, telling NBC News: “Yes, my gosh, he should have resigned after the rail strike. He should certainly resign now.” Hawley added, “Has he even been to East Palestine yet, Ohio? I mean, it’s, it’s terrible.”
Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona also tweeted Monday that Buttigieg should resign.
Buttigieg tweeted this week that his agency’s ability to regulate the rail system is “constrained by law” because of a braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration.
“A lot of this about leadership and just being available to people are making them realize that the biggest concern for people is when cameras disappear and the politicians are no longer around," Vance said. "I think the president could do a lot — standing in front of the White House press room for 30 seconds and saying, 'People of East Palestine, I see you, we’re not going to forget about you.'”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended Buttigieg on Thursday when she was asked about the criticism from Democrats and Republicans who accuse him of deflecting to the Trump administration.
“We do have absolute confidence” in Buttigieg, Jean-Pierre said at a news briefing.
In a statement Thursday morning, DeWine said he requested additional federal assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC and other agencies. DeWine said he made the request after he spoke with White House officials earlier Thursday.
“The DeWine administration has been in daily contact with FEMA to discuss the need for federal support, however FEMA continues to tell Governor DeWine that Ohio is not eligible for assistance at this time,” his office said in a statement. “Governor DeWine will continue working with FEMA to determine what assistance can be provided.”
Pressed about DeWine’s request for more federal support, the White House denied that FEMA is not supporting response to the derailment.
“As you know, these needs are much more expansive than what FEMA can meet," Jean-Pierre said Thursday. "So FEMA is on the front lines when there is a hurricane or tornado — you’ve seen the president visit devastated areas that are devastated across the country. This situation is very different. That doesn’t mean FEMA isn’t supporting response; they indeed are.
“This is a multiple agency response ... HHS, CDC, EPA, as well. They are coordinating with the emergency operation center and working closely with the Ohio Emergency Management Agency," she added. "Each federal agency has its own unique role here.”
Brown and Vance spoke out amid bipartisan calls for a congressional investigation into the derailment. It is unclear whether such probe would focus more on Norfolk Southern or on the federal government's safety standards and response to the Feb. 3 incident.
In a statement Thursday, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., joined those criticizing the administration’s response.
“It is unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up” at the derailment site, Manchin said. “I urge President Biden, Administrator Regan, and Transportation Secretary Buttigieg to provide a complete picture of the damage and a comprehensive plan to ensure the community is supported in the weeks, months and years to come, and this sort of accident never happens again. The damage done to East Palestine and the surrounding region is awful and it’s past time for those responsible to step up to the plate.”