How East Palestine became a front line in America's culture war

Biden administration too slow to recognise impacts of toxic train crash but Republican outrage is disingenuous

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The Republican Party has found a new line of attack against President Joe Biden, the mainstream media and the "woke left": They care more about the people of Palestine than they do the Americans in East Palestine.

Sorry if that is confusing. East Palestine is a village in Ohio that was the scene of a catastrophic derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals on February 3. It is in the Midwest, not the Middle East.

Nobody was killed or injured in the derailment, one of about 1,000 to occur in the US each year.

Initially at least, the fiery crash and ensuing release of dangerous chemicals seemed like a local environmental disaster that would slip from the headlines as crews cleaned things up.

But this being America in 2023, nothing is that simple. In the weeks since the derailment, East Palestine has become the latest front line in the country's ever-intensifying culture wars.

Critics of Mr Biden have forced his administration on to the defensive over what they say was a slow response to the crash, even though Ohio Governor Mike DeWine initially rebuffed White House offers of federal assistance.

Last week, former president Donald Trump travelled to East Palestine, which overwhelmingly backed him in 2020, and told residents there that the federal response had been a "betrayal".

Supporters wait for former president Donald Trump's arrival in East Palestine on February 22. EPA

Democrats, meanwhile, have blasted Mr Trump's administration for loosening rail safety measures and environmental protection when Republicans were in charge, although there's nothing conclusive to show any deregulation contributed to this crash.

Right-wing politicians and commentators have tried to show that the Biden administration wilfully ignored the derailment because East Palestine is a mainly white, blue-collar community that votes Republican.

The Biden administration is thinking, "why lift a finger to help these people. That's what's going on", right-wing radio host Mark Levin told Fox News on Tuesday.

Levin said Mr Biden was more concerned about the Palestinians than anyone in East Palestine.

"Biden is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the Palestinians in the Middle East, who are killing Jews," he said.

"But he won't spend one penny or one minute of time on Palestine, Ohio. It's pretty grotesque."

Other Republican figures tried to take a similar track in recent weeks. When Mr Biden visited Kyiv last week — by train, no less — to show solidarity with Ukraine a year after Russia's invasion, Republican politicians attacked him for focusing his attention on a geopolitical crisis.

"Americans are not Biden's priority," Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert said, insinuating that a US president trying to maintain the post-Second World War international order was somehow less important than visiting Ohio.

At the centre of all this are the people and environment of East Palestine. The Biden administration has provided a timeline of the federal response to the derailment, but there is no question it failed to recognise the rising popular anger over its handling of the crash.

It wasn't until February 23 that Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg showed up at the crash site, nearly three weeks after the disaster, a delay he said he now regrets.

Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks as he visits the site of the derailment. Reuters

Mr Biden still hasn't visited, and it took him more than two weeks to speak publicly about it. And it is clear that initial local, state and federal assessments about the risks of the chemical spill were too optimistic.

The freight train, operated by Norfolk Southern Railroad, spewed a toxic mess of vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals when it went off the rails and exploded.

Several carriages burned for two days before authorities decided to begin a controlled burn of other railcars to prevent an explosion.

That sent a plume of pressurised vinyl chloride, a highly flammable and carcinogenic gas, into the air, forcing the evacuation of East Ohio, home to about 4,700 people.

Thousands of animals have died and locals are complaining of headaches, sore throats, rashes and nausea, with some suffering from respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis.

It is clear that the environmental toll could last years as chemicals seep into local soils and waterways.

But much of the Republican outrage is manufactured and should be called out for its absurdity.

This, after all, is the party that for decades has gaslighted Americans on climate change, angrily rebutting the science even as temperatures soar, rivers dry up and forests burn.

Fox News and other right-wing networks have shown footage of dead fish East Ohio's waterways.

Yet many of the voices blaming Mr Biden for the environmental catastrophe are the same ones who oppose government regulation to protect the environment.

Most Americans can surely agree that train derailments are bad, that locomotives hauling 150 carriages of carcinogenic chemicals through built-up areas should be subject to intense scrutiny, and that local, state and federal officials should pull out all stops to immediately clean up any spills.

But instead of approaching the East Palestine disaster with that common mindset, too many people are trying to score points from it and drive what's left of America's civilised political discourse even further off the rails.

Published: February 28, 2023, 9:39 PM