Two Days After Buttigieg Visit, Biden Admin Halts Removal of Toxic Waste From East Palestine

Caution tape near a waterway in East Palestine, Ohio / Reuters
February 27, 2023

The Biden administration on Saturday halted the removal of toxic materials from East Palestine, Ohio, to ensure waste is transported to Environmental Protection Agency-certified facilities.

The EPA on Friday took control of the cleanup process from Norfolk Southern, whose train derailed in the devastating crash, and paused the company's waste shipments over the weekend, CBS News reported. The company oversaw the removal of 15 truckloads of waste to a hazardous waste treatment facility, but five trucks were returned to East Palestine after the Biden administration's order.

Excluding the returned trucks, more than 100,000 gallons of liquid waste and 4,000 cubic yards of solid waste remain in East Palestine, Republican Ohio governor Mike DeWine's office told CBS.

Debra Shore, the EPA's Region 5 administrator, said removal should continue "very soon."

"Everyone wants this contamination gone from the community," Shore said. "EPA will ensure that all waste is disposed of in a safe and lawful manner at EPA-certified facilities to prevent further release of hazardous substances and impacts to communities."

Shore said she had received complaints about the transport of waste to other states, saying the EPA needs to find "the appropriate permitted and certified sites to take the waste."

Large swaths of the area near the Pennsylvania border are contaminated with toxic chemicals after 38 train cars derailed on Feb. 3. Officials, fearing an explosion, released and burned toxic chemicals on Feb. 6, producing a massive plume cloud over the town.

"We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open," Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist, told a local news outlet.

The Biden administration's slow response to the crisis has received blowback from both sides of the aisle. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg took nearly two weeks to issue his first statement on the disaster, opting instead to lecture on construction workers' whiteness. When he finally began discussing the derailment, he attacked his Republican critics.

Buttigieg finally arrived in East Palestine on Thursday, nearly three weeks after the crash and one day after former president Donald Trump visited. Buttigieg blamed rail lobbyists, the Trump administration, and Norfolk Southern for the crash.

The secretary then called on people to avoid politicizing the crisis.

"The country should be wrapping their arms around the people of East Palestine, not as a political football, not as an ideological flashpoint, not as a gotcha moment," Buttigieg said.

He explained his delay away by blaming the National Transportation Safety Board.

"What I tried to do is balance two things—my desire to be involved and engaged and on the ground, which is how I am generally wired to act, and my desire to follow the norm of transportation secretaries, allowing NTSB to really lead the initial stages of the public-facing work," Buttigieg said.