President Joe Biden has forgotten about the residents of East Palestine, a town in that pesky, blue-collar state of Ohio, and he wants you to forget as well.
If you’re a resident of Maui, Hawaii, and hoping for the Biden administration to save you in your time of need, then I regret to inform you that it won’t.
Immediately after the devastation of the Maui wildfires, Biden showed a lack of sympathy with his “no comment” response to the disaster while vacationing on the beach in Delaware.
One day later, Biden still exhibited no urgency in responding to the destruction in Maui. The president didn’t deviate from his vacation plans and, while riding his bike, told reporters that “we’re looking into it” when asked if he planned to go to Maui.
Only after several days of negative media coverage did Biden finally state Wednesday that he would travel Monday to Maui.
These responses aren’t a surprise to anyone from East Palestine, Ohio, where they’re used to inaction by this administration.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s botched response to the Feb. 3 train derailment and chemical spill is instructive regarding what residents of Maui can expect.
It took Biden’s transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, over two weeks to show up and survey the damage in East Palestine. Buttigieg was preceded by a score of other political leaders on the right, including Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, and former President Donald Trump, as well as my colleague from The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project, Roman Jankowski.
We didn’t forget about East Palestine here at the Oversight Project. That’s why we just filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to fight for release of relevant records unlawfully withheld by the Biden administration.
To understand where we are legally, it is important to familiarize yourself with the basics of the public’s access to information laws.
The federal Freedom of Information Act, which took effect in 1967, was intended to give the public broad and quick access to government-held information through the administrative process.
In March 2022, Attorney General Merrick Garland broadly promised to “apply a presumption of openness in administering the FOIA and make clear that the Justice Department will not defend nondisclosure decisions that fail to do so.”
After hearing that, Heritage’s Oversight Project drastically scaled up its effort under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain records to inform the public. After over two years of such effort during the Biden presidency, though, it’s clear that Garland’s promise was empty.
The administrative process has turned into a judicial process. To put it simply, if you want to get information out of the government, then you have to sue the government. That takes time, lawyers, expertise, and other resources.
Our efforts in East Palestine illustrate this problem all too well. On Feb. 23, we filed a FOIA based on our on-the-ground investigation there, asking for a discrete set of documents from the Environmental Protection Agency. We asked for the documents to be provided on an expedited basis, given the intense public interest in a major disaster and, more importantly, so we could inform East Palestine residents on what their government is doing to help them.
The EPA opposed our request, so we sued the agency. In a 15-page opinion, a federal judge disagreed with our position that “residents of East Palestine are irreparably harmed every day they lack information that is vital to making informed decisions.”
Chief Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, an appointee of President Barack Obama, also disagreed that we would suffer irreparable harm because time “cannot be wound back” and “time lost to plaintiffs … is thus irreparable.”
Interestingly, Boasberg said he was concerned that Heritage not jump the line ahead of other FOIA requests. So, we filed a 64-page brief with a three-judge appeals panel, explaining why the public still has a major need to see the requested documents related to the train derailment.
To put it simply: In 2023, when a computer can search, locate, and transmit documents in minutes, the Biden administration is spending an untold amount of taxpayer dollars for the Justice Department to defend the EPA’s failure to release public records about a natural disaster. These resources are diverted from legitimate government purposes to the task of preventing disclosure of information to the American people.
This is all occurring in tandem with the EPA’s ongoing cleanup in East Palestine, which has been something of a disaster in itself.
“I’ve been incredibly frustrated with the pace of the cleanup,” Vance said during a recent press conference there. “The fact [is] that I was told the cleanup would be done in June and [then] told the cleanup would be done at the end of July—and then told the cleanup now is going to be done sometime next year.”
The Biden administration has long forgotten about everyday Americans, including those in East Palestine, Ohio. Heritage’s Oversight Project hasn’t forgotten, but it sure would be nice if the administration didn’t charge taxpayers to defend its own obstruction.
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