Lack of regulator adds to White House woes over Ohio derailment

The Feb 3 derailment of a train in Palestine, Ohio, resulted in the release of a soup of toxic chemicals. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

OHIO – President Joe Biden has yet to nominate someone to lead the federal agency that regulates the transport of hazardous materials, including the toxic chemicals that spilled following the fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern Corp train in Ohio earlier this month.

The Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has been without an administrator since Mr Biden took office, a vacancy that comes as the White House tries to quell a political crisis over its response to the Feb 3 crash that resulted in the release of a soup of toxic chemicals.

“You’ve got no one officially nominated in charge and I think that’s a problem,” said Mr Brigham McCown, who led the agency during the George W. Bush administration. “If there was a train accident, I would have been on site in 24 hours figuring out what was going on and how to fix it. That’s how you reassure the public.” 

The administration has faith in the abilities of the agency’s deputy administrator, who has been acting as the agency’s leader, a White House official said in a statement. The official didn’t address why Mr Biden hadn’t nominated someone to lead PHMSA.

“Since day one, Tristan Brown has been capably leading the agency, which was one of the first to arrive in East Palestine to support emergency response efforts,” the White House said.

The PHMSA is also charged with regulating train car design and safety specifications, and it is among those supporting the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the derailment. PHMSA didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Mr Biden’s failure to nominate a leader for the agency comes amid increasing scrutiny of the administration’s response to the derailment, including criticism senior leadership was slow to publicly respond to the crash.

“It is unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up,” Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said Thursday in regard to a visit to the site by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Michael Regan.  

The administration said officials in leadership positions stayed away from the crash scene to avoid detracting from the work of emergency responders who needed to devote their full attention to the effort.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting the people of East Palestine every step of the way, and holding Norfolk Southern accountable,” the White House said in a statement on Friday.

Volunteers Shawn Mitchell and Braden Cianni distribute cases of water to residents in Palestine, Ohio, on Feb 17, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

The administration said its response has been robust, noting derailment teams from the EPA and Transportation Department arrived on site within hours of the incident. The White House announced Friday it was also deploying the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct public health testing and assessments. BLOOMBERG

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