Analysis | When politics goes wrong
The spectacular derailment at East Palestine in Ohio allowed Republican hypocrisy and Democratic bad faith to express themselves.
Whenever a disaster strikes like hurricanes or industrial accidents, toxic politics comes to the fore and provides an opportunity for opportunists to use the spotlight of tragedy to score points.
For Republicans, East Palestine is the symbol of a conservative city victim of oblivion and lazy management by the White House, since even President Biden did not deign to go there.
While for the Democrats, this accident and the chemical leak are the consequence of Donald Trump's slashing of the rail safety rules put in place by the Obama administration which were apparently intended to prevent this type of accident.
As a reminder, the train at the heart of the accident was transporting several toxic substances, including vinyl chloride. On February 6, the American authorities released and then controlled the burning of these substances to avoid an explosion, which created a column of black smoke visible for miles around.
No deaths, fortunately, but the population has been worried about the quality of water and air for three weeks. It must be said that the death of more than 43,700 animals, mainly fish and aquatic animals, following the accident, is not necessarily reassuring.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asked Norfolk Southern Railroad to foot the bill for cleaning up the soil and contaminated water.
“Let's be clear: Norfolk Southern is going to pay to clean up the mess it has created and the trauma it has inflicted on this population.
—Michael Regan, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Since then, Republicans have used the derailment to argue that Joe Biden is prioritizing Ukraine and neglecting Americans in need at home.
Last week was obviously marked by this surprise visit by the American president to kyiv to mark the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It was also an opportunity to demonstrate his administration's solidarity and unwavering support for the Zelensky government, in order to bring about an end to the war which has multiple impacts on the political and economic scene.
Joe Biden's surprise visit to Kyiv was seen as that of a president more concerned with the international scene than the worries of his compatriots.
This trip left plenty of room for Republicans and far-right tenors who poured out their grievances and their gall against the White House on Fox News and others. For them, the opportunity was too good first to criticize this military and financial support with tens of billions of dollars, but above all to portray Joe Biden and his Democrats as heartless towards Americans who suffer. of the impacts of this derailment.
And as Joe Biden was absent in this train disaster, it was enough to provoke one of the very rare outings of former President Trump since his announcement of candidacy for the Republican nomination for 2024.
You are not forgotten, he said during his visit to East Palestine last Wednesday, after buying burgers for firefighters at a local McDonald's and distributing Trump brand water bottles.
Former President Trump came to support the residents of East Palestine.
We stayed with you, we pray for you and we will stay with you, Trump said, recalling the main lines of his America First slogan. Donald Trump, however, hasn't reported on his own mishandling of disasters, such as with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017 (remember the paper towel roll toss?) or during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fox News polemic star Tucker Carlson went even further, speaking from an overwhelmingly white and politically conservative village. It shouldn't be relevant, but it is very much, he said before going on to talk about the wealthy poor who live in wealthy cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia – a not-so-subtle allusion to Democratic cities. to populations with a high proportion of African Americans.
To add to this, Mark Levin, a right-wing radio host said that Joe Biden is more concerned about the Palestinians than anyone in East Palestine, Ohio. Biden spends hundreds of millions of dollars on Palestinians in the Middle East who kill Jews, he said.
Were federal authorities so absent from the field, as Republicans have claimed all along?
I have no complaints, said Mike DeWine, Governor from Ohio. I always complain that the bureaucracy doesn't move fast enough… But frankly, people work really hard.
“We take things day by day. But we get the help we need.
— Mike DeWine, Governor of Ohio
What defuse some Republican attacks, since Mike DeWine is an elected … Republican.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg finally visited the village of East Palestine in Ohio.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has also become a prime target for right-wing critics, as he only visited the crash site last Thursday, a day after Trump. He admitted he could have spoken sooner about the derailment, but was focused on making sure his teams on the ground were ready.
Thereupon, Fox News anchor Bret Baier conceded that visits by transportation secretaries — including Elaine Chao (a former member of Donald Trump's cabinet) — to train derailment sites were rare. What's more when the accidents did not claim victims.
In these political slippages, the Democrats also distinguished themselves. Joe Biden, for example, tweeted while in Europe, blaming his predecessor's administration for making it harder to implement rail security measures.
The White House has blamed Republicans by issuing Stop Dismantling Railroad Safety and Selling Communities Like East Palestine to the Railroad Lobby.
Recall that in 2015, after the fatal derailment of a speeding Amtrak train outside Philadelphia, President Obama took steps to mandate the installation of a technology life-saving automatic braking system by 2023, despite protests from major rail companies. In 2018, as part of sweeping regulatory reform, Mr. Trump repealed this rule.
All of this politics has knocked Jennifer Homendy, President of the National Transportation Safety Board.
“Enough politics in this case, I don't understand why this case has become so political. It is a suffering community. »
— Jennifer Homendy, speaking to Republicans
There is a lot of misinformation about what could have prevented this, she added. Everyone makes assumptions. These solutions, all the ones I've heard of, are not the solutions.
National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy has denounced the political recovery of the train derailment in East Palestine.
She hinted at a rule that would have imposed faster brakes on some trains, but which was withdrawn in 2017 under the previous administration. According to her, these brakes would not have prevented this derailment or even significantly reduced its severity. Obviously enough to defeat the Democratic attacks on Trump and the Republicans.
Mechanical failure, human weakness, the causes will be examined and validated as the investigation progresses, which will also monitor the potential repercussions on the health of residents. Several have complained of being inconvenienced by this toxic smoke with carcinogenic properties and reported having headaches and sore throats, coughs and rashes.
The fact remains that one thing is clear: both politicians on both sides and the institutions take it for their rank in this kind of slippage. And citizens are becoming increasingly wary of big business.
The authorities decided to empty the tanks and burn their contents to avoid an explosion , causing a gigantic column of smoke.
They cannot ignore that they have made huge budget cuts which have affected the number of employees. These major rail companies are said to have cut staff by 30% between 2016 and 2022.
As for the politicians, even if their attacks on their adversaries allow them to reap some points with of their supporters, citizen-voters are probably not fooled. They must know that the big transport companies employ lobbyists with well-stocked checkbooks to soften the safety regulations and the specifications imposed by politicians.
In short, politics can be as toxic as the smoke that hangs over the villages that are unfortunately the scene of such disasters.