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


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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.

“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.

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 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.”

In the weeks after the derailment, the Ohio governor declared the air and drinking water safe, and the E.P.A. has cited “no evidence to suggest there is contamination of concern.”

Norfolk Southern said it had spent more than $800 million on cleanup, legal costs and assistance to the community. As of Dec. 1, more than 175,000 tons of contaminated solid waste and 39 million gallons of wastewater had been shipped out of East Palestine, the E.P.A. said.

But hundreds of people have reported health concerns, and the E.P.A. has ordered Norfolk Southern to conduct additional investigations of two major creeks, Sulphur Run and Leslie Run, because of “oily sheens” in the water.

The train was carrying more than 700,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, which is used to produce pipes, furniture and packaging.

Much of that freight was incinerated by emergency responders, in a so-called controlled burn to avert a wider explosion. Scientists say the disaster generated hundreds of unknown compounds, but linking any health issues directly to the toxins is difficult.

In a statement, Norfolk Southern said “we understand that these residents have been through a lot, and that trust is earned,” but that it has demonstrated its commitment to making residents whole. “Norfolk Southern has engaged the community since Day 1, and we’re committed for the long haul,” the statement said.

But residents say they live in constant anxiety, fearful that they still don’t know how they may be affected by any lingering chemicals.

In June, a C.D.C. official confirmed during a community meeting that some federal employees who went door-to-door to East Palestine became sick. At the same meeting, a C.D.C. doctor told the community that the agency was prepared to help — should they develop cancer.

Ms. Conard acknowledges that with all the anxieties there, a presidential visit should be the least of her worries. A scroll through her cellphone pictures shows lesions over her 10-year-old’s eyelids, asthma prescriptions for her 4-year-old son and a soot-like substance in her shower and bathtub — all of which developed after the derailment, she said.

“The fact that the president hasn’t come is disappointing,” Ms. Conard said. “But every day that Biden doesn’t declare an emergency puts my community at risk.”

What nags at her, she said, is that the president said he would come, and he hasn’t.

Mr. Biden has characterized his decision as one of timing.

In March, when he was asked by reporters if he had plans to visit, Mr. Biden said he would be out there “at some point,” without specifying a timeline. “I’ve spoken with every official in Ohio, Democrat and Republican, on a continuing basis,” he said.

In September, he was pressed on the issue again.

“I haven’t had the occasion to go to East Palestine,” Mr. Biden said as he prepared to leave for the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi. “There is a lot going on here and I haven’t been able to break.”

He added: “We are making sure that East Palestine has what they need materially in order to deal with the problems.”

But the political pressure is mounting.

“The president will go to East Palestine,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said in September. “He promised that he would, and he will.”

As the politics over the disaster swirl around them, some residents say they have grown to resent becoming part of a partisan tug of war.

Ms. Ferguson has been living with her 82-year-old mother and 89-year-old stepfather in a home that Norfolk Southern is paying to lease until March.

She does not want to return to the home she left, which she said made her lips tingle and her eyes burn when she went back in the weeks after the derailment.

Her parents have become accustomed to the new home, now covered in signs to help her mother, who has Parkinson’s disease, and her stepfather, who has dementia, remember where they are. She wonders what will happen to them if they have to leave.

She thinks Mr. Biden would understand, even though she voted for his Republican rival.

“I still want him to come because he’s a listener,” she added through quiet sobs. “I thought if he would come, he would listen to us, and help us get out.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who visited East Palestine three weeks after the derailment, acknowledged that residents want assurances about their future.

“They want to know that they’re going to be taken care of for the long run,” Mr. Buttigieg told The New York Times earlier this month. “That’s been our commitment as an administration, to use all the tools that we have.”

Ms. Conard has grown weary of waiting for the president.

If Mr. Biden comes to East Palestine, she says, he won’t be photographed against the backdrop of devastation that usually comes with a disaster zone visit. He’d find homes with manicured lawns, many lined with American flags, some with signs that say “East Palestine Strong,” and the occasional banner proclaiming, “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Trump.”

As she stood in her kitchen preparing for her son’s 4th birthday party, Ms. Conard’s eyes welled as she thought about the possibility of having to leave her “forever home” because of health concerns.

“But where do you go?” she said. “Where do you go when your community is repeatedly ignored by the president of the United States? That’s where I want to go. I want to go where I feel like an American worth saving.”

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

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