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The toxic spill in Ohio is causing poisonous partisan politics.

After a freight train wreck smothered their town with a toxic cloud and made them afraid to drink the water, the people of East Palestine, Ohio, just want help, the truth, and accountability.

“This has the potential to completely destroy a small town like us,” Conard added.

A massive clean-up is underway, local water systems, wells, streams, and creeks are being tested, and multiple investigations are being launched.

However, these Ohioans in the midst of an environmental disaster that unexpectedly arrived on their doorsteps on February 3 are also becoming political extras for Republican White House candidates such as former President Donald Trump.

When disaster strikes in a divided America, toxic politics isn’t far behind, and derailments – such as hurricanes, industrial accidents, and transportation meltdowns – come with a political scorecard that adversaries use to try to destabilise those in power.

Republicans are using the derailment to argue that while President Joe Biden lavishes billions on Ukrainians he met during a daring trip to war-torn Kyiv this week, he ignores needy Americans at home.

“You are not forgotten,” Trump said after visiting East Palestine on Wednesday – despite the fact that he lacks the power of his former office, he has more capacity to boost his slow-moving 2024 campaign than to repair the disaster.

The train derailment is also a new risk for a Democratic rising star, Pete Buttigieg. The former Democratic presidential candidate’s position as Transportation Secretary provides a valuable platform for future campaigns. However, it carries the risk of a political backlash every time something goes wrong with America’s prone infrastructure. Buttigieg, who is set to visit Ohio on Thursday, admits he should have spoken out about East Palestine sooner and promises to learn from his mistakes. He’ll now travel there on the same day that a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report into the derailment’s causes is set to be released.

Republicans detect weakness. “He is an incompetent who is solely focused on his fantasies about his political future and needs to be fired,” tweeted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who, like Buttigieg, may run for President again in the future.

The Ohio disaster is also providing the public with a rare glimpse into the rarely seen Washington duel between regulators and freight companies, which has huge implications for keeping Americans safe as vast trains rumble through towns and cities, some as long as 150 cars, some carrying poisonous chemicals. Trump may be posing as a saviour now, but during his presidency, he presided over a reduction in environmental and safety regulations. Meanwhile, major transportation companies pay lobbyists millions of dollars to loosen safety rules and staffing levels in order to maximise profits while rewarding shareholders and cutting corners on safety.

Nonetheless, the consequences of the derailment may spark unusual coalitions in Washington. Conservative Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and progressive Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, for example, are both calling for reforms. However, in Washington, expectations of bipartisan action following a disaster often dwindle over time.

There is widespread distrust of local, state, and federal leaders.
Given the political hypocrisy on display, the sometimes slow-moving machinery of government disaster response, and the complex layers of federal, state, and local responsibility, residents may wonder if they are being heard.

Trump seizes a political opportunity.

One person’s cry for help is another person’s political opportunity.

Trump’s visit on Wednesday may have provided some solace to people in a region that overwhelmingly supported him, but it was still a partisan political manoeuvre.

“I sincerely hope that when your representatives and all of the politicians, including Biden, return from touring Ukraine, that he has some money left over,” Trump said in East Palestine, Columbiana County, where he defeated the current president with 72% of the vote in the 2020 election.

“We stayed with you, we pray for you, and we will stay with you,” Trump said, despite the fact that he has no authority over the government’s response. His attack on Biden, on the other hand, emphasised his “America First” mantra.

In response, while in Europe, Biden tweeted about the disaster, blaming his predecessor’s administration for making rail safety measures more difficult to implement and telling residents, “We’ve got your back.”

Trump pledged bottled water from his hotels and purchased burgers for firefighters at a nearby McDonald’s, adopting the trappings of a presidential post-disaster visit to boost his own political profile. During his presidency, he boasted about deploying the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is currently operating in East Palestine. He did not, however, mention his own criticised disaster management following Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico in 2017 or during the Covid-19 pandemic.

After repealing an Obama administration rule requiring freight railroads to use electronically controlled pneumatic brakes on certain trains hauling hazardous and flammable cargos, Trump dodged a question about his role in weakening safety standards. The measure would not have prevented the East Palestine disaster because the train that derailed there did not have enough cars of this type to trigger the rule if it had still been in effect. However, critics claim that Trump’s repeal of such rules, as well as his elimination of all regulations, has made railroads and Americans less safe.

Other Republican presidential candidates, both current and potential, rushed to catch up with Trump. Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, questioned whether Biden should not be “with those people in Ohio.” Haley’s attack appeared to contradict her pledge to be tougher on Russian President Vladimir Putin than Biden. After all, the president travelled to Europe around the anniversary of Russia’s invasion to warn Putin that the war would never be won. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who may run for President in 2024, said he was “glad” Biden went to Ukraine, but that he should have gone to East Palestine first.

Buttigieg is in yet another difficult political situation.
Buttigieg is one of the most well-known Transportation Secretaries in modern history, owing to his political profile. He’s been thrust into the spotlight during aviation industry travel meltdowns, such as weather-related shutdowns and the chaos caused by Southwest’s scheduling nightmare last year.

Republicans blame the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for every transportation mishap. In response, he has positioned himself as a victim advocate. In the case of the Ohio train wreck, he wrote this week to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, lamenting how the derailment had “upended the lives of numerous residents.”

“The people of East Palestine cannot be forgotten, nor can they be considered simply the cost of doing business,” Buttigieg wrote in the letter, which was clearly intended for a larger audience than Shaw.

Buttigieg also acknowledged on Wednesday that he “could have spoken out sooner” about the train derailment.

“I was focused on just making sure that our folks on the ground were all set,” Buttigieg said on CBS News’ “Red & Blue.” “I could have spoken sooner about how strongly I felt about this incident, and that’s a lesson learned for me,” Buttigieg said on “Red & Blue.”

Buttigieg stated that he has been “respecting the role that the independent NTSB plays and staying out of their way,” but that he will be “focused on action, not politics, not show” when he visits East Palestine.

Now that Biden is back in the United States, the chances of him making his own visit – to empathise with townspeople and demonstrate that he’s on top of the response – must be increasing. Such journeys are frequently about perception. However, the presence of a commander in chief galvanises the government like nothing else and assures disaster victims that they are not forgotten.

One thing is certain: if he does leave, Trump will take credit.

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