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The East Palestine Blame Game
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The East Palestine Blame Game

Plus: U.S.-Taiwan ties grow stronger.

Happy Friday! Ben, an Andean bear at the St. Louis Zoo, busted out of his habitat yesterday for the second time this month, only to be found and tranquilized a few hours later. Give the guy a break—he was clearly just trying to support his friend from theater camp by going to see his new movie on opening night.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • South Africa, China, and Russia are engaging in trilateral naval exercises off the coast of South Africa this week that South Africa—which abstained from a United Nations vote last year condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—labeled “routine.” Contrary to initial reports, a senior Russian naval officer said Wednesday Russia will not test its “Zircon” hypersonic missile during the exercises.
  • China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a bulletin this morning calling for a cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine, as well as the protection of nuclear power plants, resumption of peace talks, and the abandonment of a “Cold War mentality.” The outline does not address what should be done with the land Russia has seized in eastern Ukraine, and it reportedly comes as China is weighing whether to provide lethal aid to Russia. The Biden administration reportedly believes China may already be providing nonlethal military aid to Russia, prompting a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry to lash out at the United States for commenting on Chinese-Russian relations.
  • The European Commission announced Thursday that beginning next month, thousands of EC officials and staffers will be prohibited from downloading TikTok onto both their work-issued devices and personal devices enrolled in the EC’s mobile device service. “This measure aims to protect the Commission against cybersecurity threats and actions which may be exploited for cyber-attacks against the corporate environment of the Commission,” the body wrote.
  • President Joe Biden announced Thursday he is nominating Ajay Banga—the former head of MasterCard—to lead the World Bank. David Malpass, the bank’s current president, announced last week he would step down in late June, months before his term was set to expire. The bank’s board will have to officially appoint Banga, and it’s yet unclear if any other country will nominate someone to the role historically filled by the U.S.
  • Members of the Republican National Committee voted Thursday to hold the party’s first presidential primary debate in Milwaukee in August, with RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel emailing committee members the final criteria for being included in the debate has not yet been decided. Milwaukee will also host the Republican National Convention next year.
  • The Department of Labor reported Thursday that initial jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—decreased by 3,000 week-over-week to a seasonally-adjusted 192,000 claims last week, suggesting the labor market remains historically tight.

Sifting Through the Noise in East Palestine

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg the site of the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. (Photo by Brooke LaValley-Pool/Getty Images)

At a Tuesday roundtable in East Palestine, Ohio, a train whistle threatened to drown out Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan as he explained the official response to the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train earlier this month and resulting toxic chemical spill. As residents began to run through concerns—an 8-year-old child coughing constantly, a deli losing business because no one wants to buy chicken that smells of butyl acrylate—a train rattled along the tracks.

Since we last wrote to you about the February 3 derailment a week and a half ago, frustrations over the spill and controlled burn of toxic chemicals have only grown—as have political pot-shots and calls for regulatory changes only marginally connected to the actual accident. While Republican lawmakers and the Biden administration trade barbs over each others’ track records on railway regulation, East Palestine residents are still navigating the spill’s fallout.

In 2021, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, trains operated by the seven major freight railroads derailed 868 times—but most of these accidents occur in rail yards where they don’t make headlines. Though 868 derailments in one year may sound like a lot, the figure represents a marked improvement from the late 20th century: According to federal data analyzed by the Eno Center for Transportation, rail safety incidents have dropped 60 percent since 1990. Plus, when it comes to transmitting hazardous material, trains are far safer than the primary alternative. Trucks carry a little more than twice as much hazardous material as trains per ton-mile, but there were 22,000 hazmat-related incidents on highways in 2021 and just 378 along railways. Since 2010, highway-related hazmat accidents have killed 103 people, while rail-related accidents have killed one.

However statistically unlikely, though, the derailment in eastern Ohio earlier this month has hit East Palestine hard. At least 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil and 1.5 million gallons of contaminated water have been excavated, according to Norfolk Southern. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said the tracks at the crash site will need to be ripped up to remove contaminated soil buried in the process of getting the track operational again. Local and state health officials—with federal support—have opened a free clinic for health screenings. The EPA, meanwhile, has been offering cleaning services to homes and businesses and has continued testing water and air around town and in more than 550 homes—though it hasn’t confirmed whether it’s been testing for dioxins, persistent carcinogenic chemicals produced by burning vinyl chloride.

Invoking the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, Regan confirmed on Tuesday the EPA will require Norfolk Southern to pay for cleanup and safety testing to the agency’s specifications—or the EPA will complete the work itself, fining the rail company $70,000 per day and demanding reimbursement for triple the cost of the work. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro accused Norfolk Southern of giving officials unspecified “inaccurate information” in the days after the accident, but officials have otherwise said the railway is cooperating. Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has visited East Palestine, and the company says it’s handed out more than $6.5 million in financial assistance so far and made a local employee a community liaison, giving him $1 million to spend on recovery projects over the next year. Still, both Shapiro and DeWine said their respective states’ attorneys general are considering charges.

We still don’t know exactly what caused the derailment—and might not for some time. A preliminary report released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed a wheel bearing overheated, and surveillance video shows sparks under a car about 20 miles prior to the derailment. Rail companies set their own standards for frequency of heat testing and thresholds for what requires an immediate response, and the final test that triggered an emergency alert—when the wheel bearing was 253 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient temperature—occurred only a few minutes before the derailment. But NTSB hasn’t concluded what caused the wheel bearing to overheat, or what specific safety changes could prevent similar accidents in the future.*

That hasn’t stopped anybody from proposing preventative measures—or pointing fingers in the aftermath.

Labor unions, for example, have painted the accident as a direct result of railways’ cost cutting—a point Biden echoed. “This is more than a train derailment or a toxic waste spill—it’s years of opposition to safety measures coming home to roost,” he wrote on Instagram. Unions have been agitating for larger crew requirements and more well-defined paid sick leave—over which Congress stepped in last year to prevent a strike—and while there’s no evidence either issue played a role in the East Palestine incident, Norfolk Southern did announce this week it will offer its engineering railroaders up to seven days paid sick leave per year. 

Environmental activists, meanwhile, have called on the Biden administration to reinstate a rule—scrapped in 2017 after the Trump administration determined the costs outweighed the safety benefits—that would require trains carrying hazardous material to swap out their air brakes for electronically controlled pneumatic ones. Biden administration officials have criticized Republicans for dropping the regulation—arguing they did so at the behest of rail lobbyists—but it’s far from clear an intact rule would have prevented the derailment this month. 

The Department of Transportation also issued a list of recommended railway and regulatory changes in the wake of the accident: upgraded tank cars, paid sick leave, more safety inspections, and a rule requiring two workers for most rail operations. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg criticized Sen. Marco Rubio for supporting waivers that would allow railways to couple automated track inspections—cameras and lasers measuring track performance under trains—with fewer visual inspections, though rail companies argue the system detects defects that manual inspections can’t. Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation also called on Congress to raise the fines it can levy for safety violations—the current maximum is $225,455. Such a reform would provide “an economic incentive for railroads to decide how they would like to avoid derailments—as opposed to regulating how to avoid derailment,” said Michael Gorman, a business professor at the University of Dayton who studies railway regulation.

DeWine has also repeatedly called for a requirement that railways notify emergency officials when they transport hazardous materials through their jurisdictions, an idea Gorman called relatively simple but not necessarily helpful. “This one is not hard for the railroads to do, as far as, they have the information,” he said. “[But] would the municipalities actually have the firemen on high alert every time a train came through?”

Rather than discuss these more complex regulatory issues, many pundits have resorted to a simpler conversation: Which officials have visited East Palestine—and when? Former President Donald Trump on Wednesday became the first major out-of-state political figure to make it to the site of the crisis. 

After relentless criticism for early silence on the derailment, Buttigieg visited East Palestine Thursday, but Biden has yet to visit—prompting criticism after his trip to Ukraine. East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway called the international excursion “the biggest slap in the face,” though he’d previously said a Biden visit “would do more harm than good” by sucking up logistical resources for security. 

At least one official working on identifying the causes of the crash is already frustrated by the proliferation of calls for regulatory changes before NTSB’s final recommendations. “What happens is everybody jumps to those solutions and then when we issue our final report, we get ignored,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said Thursday. “This is a community that is suffering. This is not about politics; this is about addressing their needs.”

U.S. to Deploy Additional Troops to Taiwan

Taiwan will soon be getting some extra training support from the United States military, which will hopefully include help implementing slightly more sophisticated drone defense methods (last year, the strategy apparently consisted of chucking rocks).

U.S. officials have long been concerned that China will try to bring Taiwan under its control by force, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only underscored the potential cost of such an attack. As China increasingly menaces Taiwan with flybys and conducts military exercises around the island democracy, U.S. leaders have strengthened ties with Taiwan—including by stepping up our military presence on the island to train Taiwanese soldiers. The U.S. now reportedly plans to increase its boots-on-the-ground presence from 30 to between 100 and 200 troops.

The number of U.S. troops on the island has steadily ticked up over the last two years, but Thursday’s revelation in the Wall Street Journal—which neither U.S. nor Taiwanese officials confirmed on the record—represents the most significant increase in decades. The U.S. military has also been helping train Taiwanese troops here at home, conducting annual military exercises with the Michigan National Guard at Camp Grayling. The Journal’s report did not indicate the types of troops to be deployed, but special-operations forces and Marines have helped train Taiwan’s military in the past.

The details of the troop presence and the training program have been kept under wraps in line with America’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan-related affairs—a diplomatic stance that intentionally muddies the waters of what the U.S. is committed to do to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. Technically speaking, the U.S. doesn’t even recognize Taiwan diplomatically. But as we wrote last year, “strategic ambiguity” may be effectively eroding as relations with China grow more tense and U.S. support for Taiwan becomes more pronounced. Biden has declared multiple times that the U.S. would intervene on Taiwan’s behalf in the event of a Chinese invasion, though the White House has walked back those comments.

An increased military presence isn’t the only sign of deepening U.S.-Taiwan ties. Top Taiwanese officials met with U.S. officials this week at the Virginia-based American Institute in Taiwan—site of unofficial U.S-Taiwan diplomatic relations. High-ranking U.S. officials at the gathering reportedly included Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and Ely Ratner, the assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security.

While the officials did not disclose the topics of discussion, Voice of America reported the talks covered a range of security and diplomatic issues. The gathering was the latest in a string of quiet meetings previously reported by the Financial Times, though similar summits took place either overseas or in Annapolis, Maryland. The high-profile location and increased media coverage reflect the U.S.’s growing public support for Taiwan.

It may be unusual for Taiwanese officials to visit the U.S., but it’s recently become de rigueur for members of Congress to hit the streets of Taipei. In August then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a trip to Taiwan—the first by a sitting speaker in 25 years—which China denounced as a “serious provocation.” More recently, over Presidents Day weekend, Reps. Mike Gallagher and Ro Khanna led a small delegation of House members to the island. Last week, Michael Chase, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, also visited the country, joining the small handful of senior U.S. defense officials to have made the trek over the last 40 years.

Why the sudden flurry of troops, lawmakers, and high-ranking officials? All the attention reflects Washington’s growing concern that China is preparing for an invasion. Earlier this month, CIA Director William Burns said Chinese President Xi Jinping had directed China’s military to be prepared to invade Taiwan by 2027. “That does not mean that he’s decided to conduct an invasion in 2027, or any other year,” Burns noted. “But it’s a reminder of the seriousness of his focus and his ambition.”

And China has certainly upped its saber-rattling. After Pelosi’s August Taiwan visit, the People’s Liberation Army held military exercises around the island nation, firing missiles over the Taiwan Strait and deploying dozens of ships and hundreds of aircraft. More than 1,720 Chinese planes entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in 2022, according to an analysis by Agence France-Presse, up from 960 incursions in 2021 and 380 in 2020.

Both the U.S. and Taiwan have been preparing accordingly. The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act included increased weapons sales to Taiwan and authorized the president to draw on U.S. weapons stockpiles to help supply Taiwan if necessary. Taiwan, meanwhile, increased defense spending by almost 15 percent this year to $19 billion and plans to extend mandatory military service from four months to a year. 

Still, it’ll take time to equip and train Taiwan’s defensive forces—and China has been growing its military for years. Some Republican lawmakers argue the U.S. needs to move faster if it wants to deter brewing Chinese aggression. “The Taiwanese still aren’t at the front of the line,” Gallagher said, referencing a nearly $19 billion backlog in weapons deliveries to the island. “The Saudis are ahead of them, in a move that makes no geostrategic sense.” 

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton made a similar argument Thursday. “The aim here is not to win a war that China starts; the aim here is to deter China from doing it,” Bolton said. “And believe me, we can do a lot more to do that.”

Worth Your Time

  • Though it caught a lot of flack when it was delivered in 1979, Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” address actually aged pretty well, Peggy Noonan—Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter—argues in the Wall Street Journal. “He never used the word malaise—that’s the word people used to damningly describe it,” she writes. “Watching in a radio studio as a young writer at CBS News, I thought: That is true. As I watched again this week I thought: That was prescient. Our worry is about hatred and polarization; he was describing the demoralization that preceded it. Redrawn and reconceived, that speech would have made a good farewell address. I suppose in its way it was. Soon after the hostages were taken in Iran, and that was that. But Mr. Carter had captured some hard truths about his era and put them forth in a daring way.”
  • Wednesday marked the beginning of Lent, a time when many Christians commemorate the 40 days and 40 nights Jesus spent in the desert by choosing something to forgo until Easter. In a piece for the Financial Times, Jemima Kelly suggests the season should instruct us all on the value of doing less. “In a world driven by the twin forces of consumerism and productivity, of limitless possibility and endless overwhelm, we seem to have lost the art of—and the sense of value in—not doing stuff,” she writes. “And yet it is the not doing that can be more important, and more powerful. I have instituted a ‘to don’t’ list. Even if you don’t feel like observing Lent, perhaps you might like to join me. If you are in need of inspiration, here are a few ideas: try not to procrastinate; not to spend too much time on social media; not to get to bed too late; not to buy crypto; not to tell lies, and just generally not to behave like an idiot. Sometimes the absence of bad is more important than the presence of good.”

Presented Without Comment  

Also Presented Without Comment  

Also Also Presented Without Comment  

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Nick argues in his latest Boiling Frogs (🔒) that Ron DeSantis is “a sort of Goldilocks candidate,” perfectly situated for success in the GOP primary. “More MAGA than Pence and the conservative wing, less crazy than Trump and the populist wing: That’s how DeSantis will triangulate,” he writes. 
  • On the podcasts: On the latest episode of The Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, David, and Declan wonder why Biden frittered away an opportunity to lead in East Palestine, discuss the state of defamation law, and debate how much to care about Roald Dahl.
  • On the site: Charlotte highlights a group of veterans pushing back against isolationism in Congress, Kevin writes on the dark precedent for Marjorie Taylor Greene’s proposed “national divorce,” and Peter Mansoor reflects on one year of war in Ukraine. 

Let Us Know

When it comes to deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, what’s the biggest lesson the U.S. should take from Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine?

Clarification, February 24, 2023: Replaced “ball bearingwith “wheel bearing” for precision.

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Declan Garvey

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

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Esther Eaton

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

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Mary Trimble

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

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Grayson Logue

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.