Joe Biden

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan

February 16, 2024

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

12:06 P.M. EST

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right. Hello. I have a guest with me.

Q: Yeah.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah. Okay, just bear with me for a second. Got a little bit of a laydown of the trip.

So, good afternoon. As you all know, we are on our way to East Palestine, Ohio, where the President will hear directly from residents affected by the Norfolk Southern train de- -- derailment.

The President is making today's visit as -- at the invitation of the mayor to see the progress delivered through our whole-of-government response and to reaffirm his commitment to supporting the community as it moves forward.

While on the ground, the President will also receive a briefing from officials on continuing response and recovery efforts, which began within hours of the derailment and will continue for as long as it takes to make this community whole again.

A couple of things that I wanted to just highlight for all of you: The Department of Transporta- -- Transportation arrived on scene within hours to support the National Transportation Safety Board in their independent investigation of the derailment.

EPA also arrived within hours and continues to work around the clock to clean up the mess Norfolk Southern made, removing more than 176,000 tons of hazardous waste and removing or treating more than 49 million gallons of water, all paid for by Norfolk Southern under EPA's historic enforcement authority.

FEMA provided immediate technical and operational assistance to the Ohio Emergency Management Agency and other agencies, including by leading community outreach efforts to help keep residents informed.

And HHS continues to monitor the public health consequences of the derailment, including any long-term health issues in the affected communities.

The President also wants to ensure that what happened in East Palestine doesn't happen again here or in any other community. That's why he has deployed historic investments to modernize and upgrade rail infrastructure and make passenger and freight rail safer and continues to call on Congress to do its part by passing the bipartisan Railway Safety Act.

Today, the President is bringing a message to the people of East Palestine: We will continue to be here every step of the way, as long as it takes, and use every tool available to ensure this community is able to move forward.

And with that, I have the EPA Administrator, Michael Regan, to take any of your questions or to make any statements that you may have. Go ahead.

Q: Can you just speak up a little bit? Sorry.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah.

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: Yes. You know, I just want to add that, first and foremost, President Biden has been laser-focused on East Palestine from day one -- laser-focused since day one. As Karine said, we were there just hours after the derailment. We have been there since.

This is a historic response. Because the President has leaned in, EPA has been able to accomplish work in 12 months that would have normally taken close to five years. We have moved over 176,000 tons of contaminated soil, over 43 million gallons of contaminated water, and all the while, have had a EPA welcome center open downtown to take questions and provide educational materials to all that have been affected.

Q: Do the people of East Palestine need long-term healthcare provided to them by the federal government?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: You know, long-term monitoring and long-term healthcare are things that have been requested and are being considered. There are multiple ways that we are evaluating how to arrive to those potential solutions.

But we are listening to the people of East Palestine. And what I have pledged and what the President has pledged is that we will be there, shoulder to shoulder with the people of East Palestine, until the job is done.

Q: What is the status -- what is the status of the drinking water now?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: You know, there are weekly tests done at the municipal level by the state of Ohio, as well as continual samples for private wells, all of which are getting a clean bill of health from the state.

We check the state's homework, and we firmly believe that when the state checks a municipal well source or a private well and they say that they have a green light, we trust that methodology and believe that the water is safe to drink.

Q: What is the administration's message, though, to the residents who are concerned about the air in their homes and the water still, even though they're getting these positive messages from the -- from local officials there?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: You know, what I -- what I have to say is we have over, you know, 45,000 air quality monitoring tests strategically done around the area, over 115 million different data points that suggests that there was never any concerns for air pollution levels above safe levels.

And -- and shortly after the derailment -- I'll remind folks -- we went inside over 600 homes to do indoor air assessments and determine, even shortly after the controlled burn, that there were no elevated levels. And so, we believe that the science and the technology prove that the indoor air quality is safe.

And we are determining this through multiple measures. We have high-tech aircraft that we've had in the vicinity. We have mobile sources and trucks and others with sophisticating measurement tools. And then we have stationary air monitors placed all around this community.

We believe and know, based on the science and the data, that the air is safe.

Q: Just wanted to follow up on that. If -- if that's the case, where do the contaminants go?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: Well, you know, most of these contaminants, during the controlled burn -- dissipated immediately during the controlled burn. And we -- the -- the state ordered an evacuation. And we set up this very well-designed system for testing the air quality. So, since people have been back in their home, we've been having lots of testing and data points that determine that most of these chemicals dissipated immediately.

But we've set up this safety net to determine that there are no elevated levels in the area, externally or in these homes, based upon the derailment and the controlled burn.

Q: Can you help us understand why it took so long for the President to make this trip? Was there a specific reason? Was his own health considered in making this decision?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: You know, what I would say is, the President has been laser-focused since day one, deployed a whole-of-government approach, and decided to strategically visit and engage when he thought the time was right.

I will note that a lot of work has gone on this past year, and it has been, as of late, that the mayor extended an invitation to the President to join. And the President is responding to that local invite, which I think is very appropriate.

Q: To Josh's -- a follow-up to Josh's question. Senator J.D. Vance has proposed a $15 million long-term study for the health effects after the crash. Is that something that the administration is considering?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: You know, I -- I would say that this administration understands that we need to be there until the job is done. We also understand that the community is requesting long-term monitoring of the environment and personal health. And all of those things we believe are under consideration and deserve a really robust conversation.

Q: Have you received any information, any feedback from the residents who may still have some concerns about their air and water? Have they brought it directly to the EPA, or have you just been hearing it sort of through a trickle-down method?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: Absolutely, we've heard it directly from the community. We've been embedded in this community, you know, hours after this derailment. We have an EPA welcome center, which we've seen over 1,200 East Palestinian residents darken that door. You know, in the East Palestinian community and surrounding areas, we send out newsletters to about 9,000 homes and residents. So, we have a really robust two-way communication.

We are hearing and listening to those concerns. For those who have health concerns, we have advocated from day one: Please engage your medical providers, please provide them the appropriate information. That way we can have a better understanding from a health perspective where there may be some correla- -- correlations.

But I want to be clear that the monitoring that we've done of the municipal water, the private wells and the monitoring that we've done around the air quality demonstrates that there were no elevated levels of pollution exposure due to this derailment.

Q: Given this robust response that you've described here, what -- why do you think the people of East Palestine are so frustrated and angry at the President? I mean, we're not expecting a particularly warm welcome for the President today when he arrives. Do you have a sense for what -- what that is?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: You know, this is my fifth trip, and I've spent time with a lot of different people -- families that have been impacted, high school students. When I converse with the mayor or with Congressman Bill Johnson and with many community members, what I'm hearing is 90 to 95 percent of the people of East Palestine are looking forward -- are ready to move forward and believe that their community is safe. And they want to see this dark cloud removed from over their community.

There is a percentage of people -- a smaller percentage of people who do not quite have the faith in the quality of their water and the quality of their air. And what I would say is we continue to work with these individuals, provide the data, provide the analytics, and try to help them get to a place where they are more comfortable with what they're experiencing. Some of these people were not quite confident in their water quality before this derailment, and they're definitely not going to be satisfied after the derailment.

So, we have to continue to work with the community and meet people where they are.

Q: What's your response to requests for a disaster declaration? There has been one from the governor, from Senator Sherrod Brown. Why wasn't that made?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: You know, I think the President's executive order -- or presidential order made it clear that this option is on the table, and the state has a few boxes it needs to check to provide the federal government with the level of detail needed to pursue that. And so, the ball is in the state's court. And, you know, we will let the states lead on that and be prepared to respond at the appropriate time.

Q: Is the Ohio governor or are other federal Republican Ohio lawmakers invited to take part in the briefing or in any of the events today?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Say that mor- -- I didn't hear the question.

Q: Was -- was the Ohio governor or other, sort of, Ohio Republican lawmakers invited today? And did they decline to come or --

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I would certainly refer you to their offices. Obviously, when these -- the President makes these types of trips, he sends out an invite to -- it doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or a Republican, obviously -- he sends out the invite. But I would refer you to their respective office on -- on their schedule.

Q: All right.

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: And I'd like to say, on that point, from day one -- and I think the facts bear this out -- we have engaged both Republicans and Democrats in both states. In all fi- -- four of my trips, I've worked shoulder to shoulder with Mayor Conaway, Congressman Bill Johnson, Senator Sherrod Brown, and Governor Shapiro.

Listen, I -- I think we have been laser-focused on this community. Politics do not belong in the response of something of this -- this magnitude. So, we've -- we've definitely seen cooperation across the aisles --

Q: With 20- --

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: -- from -- from both --

Q: With 20/20 hindsight, I mean, would you have come a little sooner? Or do you think the President should have come a little sooner?

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: You know, my answer is: I -- I think we have with -- even with 20/20 hindsight, governed ourselves accordingly. There's a balancing act here. EPA, the Department of Transportation, all of the people needed to protect the public safety have been on the ground within hours.

There is a little bit of a circus when we all come, and I think respecting the mayor's wish and locally elected officials' wishes not to have federal visits disrupt the response that is needed to make people feel safe -- we have listened to the people locally. And that's why you've seen us respond the way we have. We --

Q: But are you saying that the mayor didn't want the President to come earlier? Because there was certainly a lot of desire from the community for him to come earlier. That -- that came up from them and from his constituents.

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: Yeah, I -- I -- listen, I think the mayor won reelection and people have faith in him. And the first invitation that he sent to the President was the letter, and the President responded.

I don't want to speak for the mayor, but, you know, I've spent a lot of time with the mayor, and I think I know where he stands.

Q: Can we ask Karine --

Q: There's been so many other disasters --

(Cross-talk.)

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah, yeah. Let him finish, and then (inaudible) --

Q: There have been many other disasters where the President has come sooner. So, that's why it's odd that this one has such a lengthy timeline.

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: Well, I can tell you, he has been engaged from the very beginning. And I have briefed him and his senior leader -- leadership team a number of times. And he -- he is very focused on the details. Let me tell you.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Thank you, guys. Thank you, guys, because we're about -- they're going to tell us to sit in a second.

Let me just tell you really quickly -- thank you so much, Administrator.

ADMINISTRATOR REGAN: Thank you.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, in Pennsylvania, the President is going to be joined by Representative Chris Deluzio and then with -- to meet with first responders and obviously the Mayor of East Palestine, Trent Conaway, and the Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator, Jim McPherson.

And I think I have time for a couple questions.

Q: Just to follow up on the President's remarks regarding Navalny's death --

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: Yeah, yeah.

Q: -- where does the White House stand on additional sanctions? And does it believe that sanctions can be effective in changing Putin's behavior?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I mean, look, I think the President actually answered this really, really well, which is, like, just look at what we have done in the last three years -- right? -- where we and our partners have imposed the most severe sanctions on Russia and that -- that any economy its size has ever -- ever faced.

We've kicked them up out of the -- we kicked them out of the international organization and worked to isolate them on the world stage.

And we've proved -- we've provided Ukraine with the capacity to impose massive costs on the -- on the Russian military.

And one of the things that the President said is that, look, if -- if we really want to make sure that we keep -- we -- we really react to what Put- -- Putin is doing, we got to get that supplemental. It's so critical to get that supplemental.

And the President obviously said we're not going to lay out what we're going to do next, if -- if it -- it is indeed -- if we move forward with sanctions. But the supplemental is so key and critical, and that's what we're going to continue to call on Congress --

Q: Is the -- is the --

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: -- to that done.

Q: -- White House taking any moves to find out specifically how he was killed?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, look, obviously, we want to get to the bottom of this and -- and --

Q: (Inaudible.)

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: -- get a sense of what happened. But I don't want to get ahead of that. And we do believe there should be an investigation.

So, we probably should sit down, guys. Hold on. I --

Q: Do you think there should be an investigation by whom?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I mean, look, we believe that it should be investigated, that it should be looked into. But I don't want to comment, obviously, on intelligence matters. I want to be really mindful here.

But we know what we know, which is what the President said -- and you heard this from the Vice President as well -- that this is -- that this -- that Putin clearly is -- is -- you know, he -- he's responsible for this, and everybody should be clear about that. He is responsible for this.

Q: Does the White House welcome Special Counsel Hur testifying before Congress next month?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: So, I'm going to -- I'm going to be really careful about that. I'm not going to comment on -- on that. That is something for Congress to -- to decide.

Q: Do we expect the transcripts to come out before or after that testimony?

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: I mean, I'm not going to give a timeline on the transcript, obviously. Obviously, we've looked -- we're looking into it. I just don't have anything else to say about that.

Q: Thanks.

Q: Thanks, Karine.

MS. JEAN-PIERRE: All right, no problem. That was a little dicey.

2:22 P.M. EST

Joseph R. Biden, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/369617

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