Essential Politics: Shock waves from East Palestine train derailment reaching beyond Ohio

EPA official looks for signs of fish and also agitates the water in Leslie Run creek in East Palestine, Ohio.
Ron Fodo, with the Ohio EPA emergency response team, examines Leslie Run creek for chemicals after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
(Michael Swensen / Getty Images)

Last week, while scrolling aimlessly through TikTok, I saw a troubling video. As a woman poured creamer into her coffee, the liquid sizzled.

“I don’t think this is normal,” the video’s caption read.

The woman indicated that she made the coffee with tap water from an area near East Palestine, the site of the Feb. 3 train derailment that resulted in the release of toxic chemicals. The video, which has garnered more than 20 million views, is one of many circulating the internet showing the real-life implications of the train disaster.

The incident, which occurred near the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line, has unleashed a fury among residents who were evacuated and are concerned about the environmental and health effects as well as the government’s response to the disaster.


The episode has also garnered attention in political circles: Democratic and Republican senators have both called for a congressional investigation into the company at the center of the disaster. Some within the GOP are blaming Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and demanding his resignation.

Was this disaster preventable? What will happen to the people and animals affected by this disaster?

Hello, my name is Erin B. Logan. I cover national politics for the L.A. Times. This week, we are going to discuss trains, derailments and politics.

What happened in Ohio?

On Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, about 50 freight train cars operated by Norfolk Southern derailed. At least five of these rail cars carried vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical known to cause rare forms of liver, brain and lung cancers. In an effort to avert a larger uncontrolled explosion, crews released these and other toxic chemicals into the air and burned the area themselves. This controlled burn is said by local officials to be a way to mitigate and control the risk residents and wildlife face. Contaminants from derailed cars spilled into some waterways and were toxic to fish, the Associated Press reported.

As of last week, the Ohio River’s waterways were still contaminated with other toxic chemicals, officials said during a news conference last week, ABC News reported. Officials said the water supply is not contaminated but the spill has killed about 3,500 fish in more than seven miles of streams and tributaries, according to Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Vinyl chloride has not been detected in the water, officials said.

The derailment is attributed to a mechanical issue on a rail car axle, according to federal investigators, the Associated Press reported.

The response

Many in the town of about 5,000 residents are incensed with the state and Norfolk Southern Railway response. The railway company last week refused to attend a local meeting.

Some are also peeved that President Biden has not done more. On Monday, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway expressed outrage that Biden had yet to visit the town. Biden visiting Ukraine this week “was the biggest slap in the face,” Conway said during an interview with Fox News journalist Jesse Watters.


“That tells you right now he doesn’t care about us,” Conway said. “He can send every agency he wants to ... giving billions of dollars away to people [in Ukraine] and not to us.”

He added: “I’m furious.”

The White House has faced criticism for the federal government’s response in the wake of the derailment. Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio on Thursday called on Buttigieg to resign.

On Tuesday, Buttigieg announced reforms, including requiring at least two crew members for most railroad operations, and initiating a safety inspection program focused on routes that carry copious amounts of hazardous materials. Buttigieg also called on Norfolk Southern to not replace in-person inspections with technology.

In a statement Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency Adminstrator Michael S. Regan said that federal regulators would lead the cleanup effort and Norfolk Southern would cover the cost. If they refuse, the government would do the work and seek triple the damages from the company, the Associated Press reported.

“Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they’ve inflicted on this community,” Regan said in the statement. During the news conference, he added: “In no way shape or form will Norfolk Southern get off the hook for the mess they created.”

Norfolk Southern said it would create a $1-million fund for the East Palestine community. The multibillion-dollar company has for years reportedly spent millions lobbying the federal government to relax safety rules.


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The latest from the campaign trail

— Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, a longtime favorite of liberal Democrats, confirmed Tuesday that she will run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Times writer Seema Mehta reported. Lee’s political activism dates back more than half a century. She worked on the 1972 presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black congresswoman, and on Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale’s mayoral race in Oakland the next year. Although unsuccessful in past efforts to join House Democratic leadership, Lee has led the congressional Black and progressive caucuses.

— Even before Feinstein announced last week that she would not seek reelection in 2024, ambitious Democratic politicians had begun lining up to replace her, Times writer Seema Mehta reported. In recent years, Feinstein has faced mounting questions about her mental acuity and her old-school brand of bipartisanship that is viewed as outdated in today’s bitterly divided era. These factors led Democrats to leap into the race to replace her before she announced her intentions — a move that would previously have been considered impolitic.

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The view from Washington

— One year after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine with the aim of capturing the capital city, the country is still “independent and free,” Biden proclaimed Tuesday in Poland, Times writers Courtney Subramanian and Laura King reported. The speech echoed his comments a day earlier in Kyiv, where he made an unannounced visit to show U.S. solidarity and announce $500 billion in new aid for Ukraine. He strolled the streets of the besieged country’s capital city with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as air-raid sirens blared, a risky feat that required a covert, predawn flight and a 10-hour, overnight train ride.

— Several Supreme Court justices said Tuesday they were wary of allowing lawsuits against YouTube and other social media firms over algorithms they use to direct users to related content — even if that encourages terrorists or promotes illegal conduct, Times writer David G. Savage reported. The justices had agreed for the first time to hear a challenge to Section 230, the federal law that shields websites from being sued over content posted by others. That set off alarms at big tech firms.


— The Biden administration announced a policy Tuesday that would limit asylum access to immigrants who cross into the U.S. without authorization and fail to apply for protections on the way to the southern border with Mexico, Times writer Hamed Aleaziz reported. The new proposal will not take effect immediately and will go through a regulatory process to allow public comment for 30 days before the policy is finalized. After that time, the policy is set to be in place for two years following its effective date. The effort is the latest Biden administration proposal to deter migrants from entering the U.S. without authorization, and to bring down the numbers of migrants crossing the southern border.

The view from California

— In his budget proposal, Gov. Gavin Newsom directed UCLA to guarantee admission to thousands of community college students who complete required coursework and meet a specified grade-point average — or risk losing $20 million in state funding, Times writer Teresa Watanabe reported. He and many equity advocates have been pushing the University of California to simplify its transfer process and widen entry to more state students, especially at UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego, the system’s three most selective campuses. Newsom’s proposal blindsided UCLA and set off a scramble to understand the governor’s intent.

— California tenants and their families would no longer face mandatory eviction or exclusion based on their criminal histories or brushes with law enforcement under new legislation introduced Friday, Times writer Liam Dillon reported. Assembly Bill 1418 takes aim at local policies known as “crime-free housing,” which can force landlords to evict tenants accused of breaking the law or refuse to rent to those with prior criminal convictions. The rules make it harder for renters, especially Black and Latino tenants, to find and remain in affordable housing, said Assemblymember Tina McKinnor (D-Inglewood), the bill’s author.

— Two members of the Los Angeles City Council called Friday for an overhaul of the Police Department’s disciplinary process, one that would enhance the police chief’s power to fire officers and scale back the involvement of civilians in disciplinary hearings, Times writer David Zahniser reported. The proposal would eliminate the department’s practice of allowing civilians to fill all three seats on the Board of Rights, a panel that reviews LAPD disciplinary cases and then renders a decision. That system, created as part of the 2017 ballot measure, has been more lenient toward officers than the more traditional disciplinary panels, which featured one civilian and two LAPD command officers, said council members who proposed the bill.

The Associated Press contributed reporting. Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and send pictures of your adorable furbabies to me at

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