Did the government screw up the East Palestine investigation?

February 23, 2023 • 11:45 am

Reader Jim Batterson wrote me this morning that Bari Weiss’s “Free Press” site had done an unfair hit job on the Biden administration by claiming (as many people have) that they were slow to respond to the train crash and aren’t doing much. The locals are saying the same thing. Jim claims that that’s unfair, and he notes that he found out by a simple bit of Googling on the Internet.  First, here’s the Free Press article (click to read):

An a quote from Zito’s piece.

But while Trump and Vance and Gabbard are all showing up, the actual people running this country have been missing in action. It took until February 16—nearly a full two weeks after the crash—for the first top Biden official, EPA administrator Michael Regan, to be on the scene. Meanwhile, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg—who has one job, overseeing the infrastructure of this country—has not yet witnessed the catastrophe in person nor did he acknowledge it until February 13, though he is scheduled to arrive today. President Joe Biden released a fact sheet about the accident and tweeted about it, but he hasn’t given a speech about it, let alone visited the town. In fact, on Monday, he was 5,000 miles away in Kyiv, meeting with the president of Ukraine and pledging more aid in the war against Russia.

That the president ignored East Palestine and chose to make a big splash in a foreign country symbolizes what matters most to the White House, the town’s mayor Trent Conaway said.

“That was the biggest slap in the face,” Conaway fumed on Fox. “That tells you right now he doesn’t care about us. He can send every agency he wants to, but I found out this morning that he was in Ukraine giving millions of dollars away to people over there and not to us… on President’s Day in our country, so I’m furious.”

Jim’s reaction:

There was a terrible hit job regarding the federal response to the train derailment on Free Press this morning.  I mentioned to you last week that, based on my experience with the process of investigating airplane accidents, I expected that at least the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and EPA would be on-site pretty quickly regardless of what the Ohio governor wanted or did not want. These are federal regulatory agencies and railroads are part of interstate commerce.  Investigators have “go-packs” ready to head out as soon as they are notified that they are needed and must travel from around the country to the accident scene immediately.
I was right.  At this site there’s a day-by-day summary of EPA involvement with first report the day after the derailment occurred on the night of February 3.
It says that first EPA responder was on-site at 2:00 the next morning. . . just five hours after the derailment was officially reported. In addition, The NTSB was there and did two press conferences: one the day after derailment (15 minutes long); and the second (10 minutes) on the day after that.  Both available on video from ntsb.
Neither MSM nor the crappy MSNBC are questioning the Trumpists and the supposed claims of locals and simply distorting the truth as far as I can see.

He added shortly thereafter (I’ve put the YouTube links in):

The NTSB press release is here.  It contains hot links toward the bottom that link to videos of both the February 4 and February 5 press conferences led by the NTSB guy onsite at the crash.

Jim’s point (and I have to say that I agree with him after watching television coverage of the event, having read the Free Press article, and having read the press release, the government timeline, and watched the videos) is that the Free Press, much of the MSM, and some of the locals, are unfairly denigrating the Biden administration for a slow (and therefore) harmful response to the crash. (The Free Press, of course, is pretty much anti-Biden, so I’m not surprised there.) As for the claim that Biden didn’t give a speech wholly devoted to the crash, nor visited the town, doesn’t carry much weight with me.

Biden was in Europe, and he did comment on the crash. And really, officials going to the site is more a cosmetic thing than a practical thing—an attempt to convince the public that the government cares. But it does care, as you can see from above, and the fact that Mayor Pete will be there today is enough for me.

The people of East Palestine have indeed been hit by a scary event, with a wrecked train spewing toxic smoke into the air and water. They have every right to worry about how much they’ll be hurt by the crash. But as far as I can see, what with continual testing of the air and drinking water, I think the government has responded appropriately and is taking the accident with the due gravitas. If you want you can diss Biden and Mayor Pete for not showing up, fine, but I don’t see that you can diss the whole administration, as Zito did, by saying “the people running this country have been missing in action.” Really? I think you have to make the case not based on whether the President or Secretary of Transportation visited the site, but on how the government responded.

15 thoughts on “Did the government screw up the East Palestine investigation?

  1. To be fair, the government has a terrible record on declaring things safe, like Agent Orange, the 9/11 wreckage/dust, and the burn pits in Iraq. In East Palestine they were there, but they weren’t communicating to the residents about what was going on, or answering questions about how much dioxin is safe. My impression is, though, that the feeling of abandonment comes from the extended period of time before the Governor of Pennsylvania (whose state much of the ‘fallout’ affects), the Secretary of Transportation, or the President visited the affected localities. That plus the fact that FEMA initially denied any coverage, a decision they mysteriously changed once Trump announced he was going to go there. Buttigieg had to be badgered to go, and in the mean time implied that these things happen all the time (derailments do, major chemical spills don’t). Not surprisingly Biden decided the photo op he wanted was in Ukraine rather than East Palestine.

    I also liked that the head of the NTSB implying that any speculation about the crash was tantamount to “misinformation.” This is a perfect example of where a closed government like the Soviet Union would have suppressed the story.

  2. Jim is right, this is most definitely a hit job.

    From what I’ve read, right after this happened, Biden did call the governor and asked what he needed and that he’ll send anything he needs. At the time, the governor said he hadn’t called Biden back. That says it all to me. If Biden went and visited right away, I’m sure the Right would have criticized him for doing a photo op. I really get the impression that the Biden administration, in any given situation, will be criticized no matter what they do. It’s really childish. If Biden showed up at every horrible accident that happens in this country, that’s all he would be doing. And any visit by any POTUS is a disruptive logistical endeavor.

    It’s also worth noting that Obama signed an executive order that trains carrying toxic cargo were to be equipped with electronic pneumatic breaks by the year 2021. The Trump administration killed the order in 2018. There is speculation that if the train was equipped with the better brakes, this would not have happened.

    The culprit is Norfolk Southern and they didn’t even have the decency to meet with the East Palestine residents at a town hall, citing “physical threat” by the angry residents.

    And as far as Biden’s trip to Ukraine, that has been in the works long before this accident took place. And, from where I’m sitting, visiting Kyiv was a hell of a lot more important than showing up in East Palestine.

    1. Agree this seems to be exaggerated by the President’s political opponents, especially since fortunately no one was killed. Unless someone sabotaged the track, which does happen—we had a spate of them during protest movements in 2019-20 — derailments are on the railroad 100%. They own the track, the signals, and the trains. Surveillance video shows a fire in the wheel bogies of one of the cars—a generic covered hopper, not a tank car that would carry vinyl chloride — as it was rolling through town, shortly before it derailed. This is often due to a seized wheel bearing that overheats until the axle breaks. Conceivably a dragging brake shoe could overheat the wheel and axle too. There are supposed to be trackside sensors that monitor trains for these events. (In the days of cabooses, my grandfather would stick his nose out the window periodically to sniff for smoke if it was too dark to see and no flames had broken out.). There is no evidence yet that brake failure played a role, though, and so speculation about the relaxation of the brake rule is a political red herring until the investigators figure out what really happened.

      Brake failure did cause two recent downhill runaway wrecks in Lac Megantic Quebec, and in the Canadian Rockies on the Big Hill above Field, BC. (Winter played a role in the latter, but it’s always winter up there, or can be any day of the year.).

      A train was “speculated” to be the cause of a devastating fire in Lytton BC in 2021 but this, too, turned out to be politically motivated finger pointing. There was nothing wrong with the train which had reached Vancouver uneventfully.

      You are certainly right that big shots visiting a disaster area do more harm than good.

    2. Agree on the criticism being misdirected. I didn’t know about Trump rescinding Obama’s brake requirement order, but I did know that the EPA was down about 1000 senior career personnel thanks to Trump, so it was pretty rich for Trump to do a photo op and complain!


  3. Salena Zito does not do hit pieces. Her approach is to show up in person and talk to working class folks that are mostly ignored by the mainstream press. And that is what she does here. This story is about the *feelings* of the people in Palestine. Now, you can argue that they should not feel the way that they do, but you can be sure that her account accurately represent the sentiments of ordinary people in Palestine.

    1. In the quoted section Salena Zito is most certainly not expressing the feelings of the people in East Palestine but those of herself. So maybe she doesn’t do hit pieces, but just sucker punches?

  4. So who writes the articles on the facts of what is really happening? Was the authors phrasing without quotes: “…sent a fireball into the sky, with a black mushroom cloud that looked like something out of Chernobyl”. Mushroom cloud? Chernobyl? Really now. I stand by my criticism.

  5. My suspicion is that people generally have begun to suspect that the federal government will act against the best interests of the people, should there be a political advantage for the ruling party in doing so. Whether they did so in this case seems doubtful, but time will tell.

    About the accident- In trains, ships, aircraft, and lots of other types of machinery, bearings are a key point of potential failure. A small fault in a bearing set quickly cascades into a large fault. Heat or vibration are usually early clues of such failure.
    In this case, it appears that just such a failure occurred in a wheel bearing. The track in question is equipped with trackside heat sensors. Those sensors had showed a warming trend in the wheelset that eventually failed, but it did not reach the threshold requiring action until the train reached East Palestine. The engineers were in the process of stopping the train due to the alarm when it derailed.

    The Trump-era DOT rule change is irrelevant here, because this train was classified as a general merchandise train, so the rule would not have applied anyway.

    It is true that people’s reactions to what they believe to be contaminated air, water, and land is often subjective.

    I would like to see further analysis of the chain of command and thought process that led to the decision to use explosive charges to breach the railcars that were suspected to be in danger of bursting. Also whether their plans properly accounted for the contents of nearby cars that blew when the charges were set off. Although NS sent a press release out that “The controlled breach of several rail cars has been completed successfully”, it looks to me like the mushroom cloud was not a controlled response to anything.

    On ships, the potential reaction of different chemicals should there be a fire or a leak is part of the stowage plan, but one cannot always predict how things will interact in a disaster. Placing a bunch of inert cars between those that can react poorly to each other might be a poor strategy when the cars are all piled together after a derailing.

    1. The Trump-era DOT rule change is irrelevant here, because this train was classified as a general merchandise train, so the rule would not have applied anyway.

      I think it’s relevant that this train should have been classified differently than “general merchandise”. I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump’s deregulation (or we can use your euphemism “rule change”) allows mile-long trains carrying toxic substances to be classified as general merchandise; saves the railroad companies a lot of money since they don’t have to skirt populated areas.

      1. The rule had to do with trains classified as “high-hazard flammable trains”, which is a is a “single train comprised of 20 or more loaded tank cars containing a Class 3 flammable liquid in a continuous block, or 35 or more loaded tank cars containing a Class 3 flammable liquid across the entire train. A high-hazard flammable unit train is a train comprised of 70 or more loaded tank cars containing Class 3 flammable liquids.”

        The 2015 regulation required a cost/benefit analysis of refitting such trains with ECP braking systems. Here is a link to a concise summary of the conclusion-

  6. If you need to dis any body:
    1) Governor DeWine initially turned down help from FEMA although he requested it later
    2) 45 reversed railroad safety measures signed during Obama’s administration

    MSM and FSN spin
    1) Governor DeWine HAD to ask FEMA for help
    2) Biden and Buttigieg should have re/approved these regulations
    Yes, Biden was in Poland and Ukraine. I’m sure the logistics for this trip took a bit more planning than showing up to distribute t*rump 13 year old bottled water.

  7. I think Mayor Pete made an error in political judgement by not visiting East Palestine sooner, given that the Republican outrage was predictable. He (Pete) could have repeated President Biden’s message to Governor DeWine, and invited the Governor to ask for help that the feds would be happy to provide. It would have a long way to offset the right wing’s misinformation. Would Pete’s early visit there done any practical good? No. But, as we see every day, optics matter.

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