Buttigieg: Not speaking out sooner about train derailment is "lesson learned"
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg acknowledged Tuesday that he "could have spoken sooner" about the disastrous Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that has caused serious health and environmental concerns because of the hazardous chemicals it was transporting.
The 38 cars that derailed roughly two weeks ago were carrying substances including vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene — all toxic to humans and the environment. The train derailment contaminated at least 15,000 pounds of soil and 1.1 million gallons of water, according to Norfolk Southern. Ohio residents have expressed outrage and frustration over the federal government's slow response in providing health and humanitarian services. Buttigieg took 10 days to publicly address the crisis, a response which he now concedes should have come sooner.
"I was focused on just making sure that our folks on the ground were all set, but could have spoken sooner about how strongly I felt about this incident, and that's a lesson learned for me," Buttigieg told CBS News political correspondent Caitlin Huey-Burns Tuesday in an interview airing on CBS News' "Red & Blue."
The transportation secretary also explained why he has not yet visited East Palestine, as Republicans and residents criticize his absence. Buttigieg noted that Transportation Department representatives were "on the ground from day one," and he said he wants to give the National Transportation Safety Board the space it needs to properly conduct and complete its investigation, and he wants to make the trip when it can be one of "action," rather than image.
"I have followed the normal practice of transportation secretaries in the early days after a crash, allowing NTSB to lead the safety work and staying out of their way," he said. "But I am very eager to have conversations with people in East Palestine about how this is impacted them."
He declined to comment on whether Norfolk Southern had violated any safety rules, saying that will be determined by the NTSB's probe.
"That again is the outcome of an investigation, and I'm not going to get ahead of the results of that investigation," Buttigieg said. "What I will say is that Norfolk Southern is a multi-billion-dollar railroad company that has stood with its peers to push back on regulation after regulation, to try to water down, weaken or in some cases, remove, important rail safety rules and too often they get their way."
Buttigieg said the rail industry needs to "move immediately" to do at least three things — protect whistleblowers by signing up for a Transportation Department program, proactively alert states when trans are carrying hazardous materials and provide sick leave to all workers.
Even as environmental workers and investigators do their work, Buttigieg said they're moving to the "policy" phase of response to the disaster. They don't have to wait for the NTSB report to take several steps, he said. The Department of Transportation is trying to drive forward a rule that would require at least two people to staff trains, when some rail companies want as few as one. He has also directed the Federal Rail Administration to conduct a stepped-up inspection program on routes carrying hazardous materials. And he's calling on Congress to raise the caps on fines the federal government can impose on rail companies.
Buttigieg didn't specify what his agency could have done sooner to prevent this crisis but said every rail incident calls into question how the department can strengthen regulations, "something that the rail industry has fought."
Buttigieg sent a letter Sunday to Norfolk Southern's CEO, demanding the company "demonstrate unequivocal support for the people" of East Palestine and surrounding areas in the wake of the derailment.
"Norfolk Southern must live up to its commitment to make residents whole — and must also live up to its obligation to do whatever it takes to stop putting communities such as East Palestine at risk," Buttigieg wrote. "This is the right time for Norfolk Southern to take a leadership position within the rail industry, shifting to a posture that focuses on supporting, not thwarting, efforts to raise the standard of U.S. rail safety regulation."
The Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine have made it clear that Norfolk Southern, not the taxpayers, will be responsible for the bill from the disaster's fallout.
Buttigieg on Tuesday also responded to former President Donald Trump's scheduled visit Wednesday to East Palestine. Trump has criticized the federal government's response.
"I don't know what he's planning to do there," Buttigieg said. "I do know that we have work to do that we've been underway on from day one of this situation, and while you know the politics will come and go and the grandstanding will come and go, we will be there for the long haul to make sure that this community is supported, and to make sure that there is more accountability for the railroad industry in this country."
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