Biden’s Gaffe-Filled Visit to East Palestine A Year After Derailment 

Gints Ivuskans /
Gints Ivuskans /

On February 3, 2023, at 8:55 p.m. EST, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed and caught fire in East Palestine, Ohio, causing a fire that lasted for days. This released harmful chemicals into the air and water, leading to the evacuation of people living within a 1-mile radius. The derailment also wrecked the rail tracks, a nearby bridge, and some buildings. 

The controlled burn of the carcinogen vinyl chloride, along with isobutylene, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol mono butyl ether, and ethylhexyl acrylate, has raised concerns among residents regarding elevated cancer risks in the community. Still, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has sounded the “all clear.” 

More notable than the incident was the Biden administration’s complete lack of attention to it.

Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, arrived at the East Palestine incident site on Thursday, February 23, 2023, three weeks after the derailment. He shared photos of his visit and expressed solidarity with the people of East Palestine via Twitter. But protestors, already unhappy with the delayed response, raised concerns about his mental acuity and accused him of being dishonest about water and air safety. 

Meanwhile, Vice President Kamala Harris continued her trend of not showing up in times of crisis and did not travel to East Palestine following the train derailment. Instead, she visited Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on February 20, 2023, to discuss the infrastructure package and clean water initiatives. Despite East Palestine being roughly 50 miles from Pittsburgh, she did not include it in her itinerary. While she did express support for the East Palestine community via Twitter on February 22, 2023, again three weeks after the incident, she faced criticism for not making a personal appearance in the area.  

President Biden’s visit to East Palestine, Ohio, on Friday, February 16, 2024, came more than a year after the disaster. During his visit, he engaged with local officials and residents, toured the cleanup efforts, and delivered a brief address, attributing blame to the train company and pledging federal assistance. 

Biden’s late appearance on the scene sparked protests and received criticism from many locals who believed he had neglected the town for too long and had not adequately supported the town’s recovery. His election-year visit was greeted with jeers from protestors, who gathered with signs reading “Go home, Sleepy Joe” and “Too Little, Too Late.” One protestor was seen giving the middle finger to the motorcade. 

It’s easy to understand both why Biden refused to offer significant assistance to East Palestine and why protestors wanted him to stay away from their city. East Palestine, and Ohio in general, has lost swing-voter importance to Democrats. 

Operating under a Republican trifecta, Ohio’s governance sees control by the Republican Party across crucial positions, including the governorship, the secretary of state, the attorney general, and both chambers of the state legislature. Recent data on party affiliation from the Ohio Secretary of State indicates a higher number of registered Republicans than Democrats in the state, and the state has consistently leaned to the right for the past few election cycles. 

East Palestine, Ohio, a small town with just under 5000 residents, sits in the state’s northeastern region. The political landscape of East Palestine leans heavily conservative. Columbiana County, home to East Palestine, has consistently supported the Republican Party in every presidential election since 2000. Additionally, the town’s current mayor, Trent Conaway, is a member of the Republican Party. 

Biden stayed just long enough to sip coffee made from a water source in East Palestine while ignoring a glass of tap water, delivered a six-minute gaffe-riddled speech where he mispronounced both the town’s name and the railway’s name, forgot the governor’s name, and moved the year of the disaster to 2024 before heading to Delaware for another vacation. 

But Biden’s hesitancy to address the disaster may be even more politically motivated than his dislike of Republicans. Biden received $200,000 in donations from the rail industry, with $15,000 originating from Norfolk Southern’s PAC in 2020. These donations constituted the second-highest number of contributions from the rail industry to any presidential candidate, following Trump, who received over $300,000. 

As the Biden administration suddenly remembers that there are voters in Ohio, it may be a case of “too little too late.” But for Team Biden, those votes don’t count anyway.