I Feel Like I Don’t Matter’: East Palestine Waits for a Presidential Visit

The White House has said that Mr. Biden still plans to visit the site of a toxic derailment in February. But his absence feels like disrespect to many people in East Palestine, Ohio.

A woman standing on a large rock in the middle of a creek surrounded by trees while wearing a respirator mask and gloves.
Christina Siceloff checks for contamination in Sulphur Run, a creek in East Palestine, Ohio.Credit…Andrew Spear for The New York Times
A woman standing on a large rock in the middle of a creek surrounded by trees while wearing a respirator mask and gloves.
Erica L. Green

By Erica L. Green

Reporting from East Palestine, Ohio

Dec. 28, 2023

When Jessica Conard heard that President Biden would visit her community in East Palestine, she felt a sense of relief.

Mr. Biden’s presence, she believed, would signal to the world that nothing short of disaster happened here in February, when a Norfolk Southern train skipped the tracks and spilled thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into the environment.

All these months later, she’s still waiting for him.

“I feel like I don’t matter,” said Ms. Conard, who has grown disillusioned with the president she voted for in 2020. She was particularly aghast that he flew past her town in September to join picketing union workers in Michigan, a key swing state.

The White House insists that Mr. Biden still plans to visit.

“The president continues to oversee a robust recovery effort to support the people of East Palestine, and he will visit when it is most helpful for the community,” said Jeremy M. Edwards, a White House spokesman.

But for many residents, Mr. Biden’s absence feels like disrespect. Despite years of promoting himself as “working class Joe,” Mr. Biden is widely viewed here as a Washington insider who is neglecting the catastrophe in their midst.

Jessica Conrad holding her son.
“I feel like I don’t matter,” said Jessica Conard.Credit…Andrew Spear for The New York Times
Jessica Conrad holding her son.

“I believe that it is political for him,” said Krissy Ferguson, who lives within a mile of where the train derailed, in a county former President Donald J. Trump won with more than 70 percent of votes in 2020.

“I believe that if we were in a blue area, he would have come, and that hurts,” she said.

The derailment almost immediately became a political flashpoint, fomented by conservative commentators who seized on the crisis to sow public distrust in the Biden administration. In the days after the wreck, Mr. Trump — Mr. Biden’s likely rival in the 2024 presidential campaign — visited East Palestine and handed out Make America Great Again hats, telling the crowd: “You are not forgotten.”

Administration officials have defended the government’s response to the derailment, saying the Environmental Protection Agency and FEMA have deployed a steady stream of resources and hundreds of staff members to assess environmental and health risks. Many remain on the ground, officials said.

Mr. Biden also signed an executive order in September calling on federal agencies to continue conducting assessments to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, and he appointed a FEMA coordinator to oversee long-term recovery efforts.

But he did not issue a disaster declaration, which would allow the state to tap into more federal resources to help with recovery efforts, such as relocation assistance, crisis counseling and hazard mitigation.

A giant plume of black smoke is seen high above a row of houses in a neighborhood.
A plume of black smoke loomed over East Palestine days after the train derailment in February.Credit…Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
A giant plume of black smoke is seen high above a row of houses in a neighborhood.

The administration has said a disaster declaration is not the answer because there is a responsible party: Norfolk Southern. Unlike the wildfires in Maui, for example, the derailment was not a natural disaster. The federal disaster law, called the Stafford Act, is designed to make federal funding a payment of last resort.

The state’s request for a federal disaster declaration remains open while the coordinator completes an assessment to find needs not being met by Norfolk Southern.

But none of that sits right with Jami Wallace, an East Palestine native who says Norfolk Southern is playing “God and government.”

“We do not live in the United States of Norfolk Southern,” said Ms. Wallace, who formed the Unity Council for EP Train Derailment to keep track of the derailment response and the community’s concerns. “We live in the United States of America.”

Members of the group say they want their https://kerasnya.com government to take care of them. They want lifelong health screenings and benefits, long-term indoor air monitoring and testing that would detect and provide treatment for chemical exposures now and in the future.

Norfolk Southern has committed to cleaning up the damage — and is being monitored federally to follow through — but they want the kind of long-term commitment that they trust only the federal government can provide.

“When you look at Maui, you can see the devastation,” said Ms. Wallace, “but you can’t see chemicals in the air, in contaminated houses.”

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