Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said Thursday that the train derailment that spilled toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, demands “raising the bar on regulation.”
Visiting the small town on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border nearly three weeks after the accident, Mr. Buttigieg called on Congress, railroad companies and elected leaders of all political stripes to lead the charge for more federal rules that might help prevent similar disasters in the future.
His message was directed in part at former President Donald Trump, whose deregulatory regime Democrats have blamed for possibly contributing to the toxic train wreck. Mr. Trump visited East Palestine a day earlier to support the community and criticize the Biden administration for not doing more.
Mr. Buttigieg said Mr. Trump, who is running for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, has a key role to play in strengthening the safety of the system if he is serious about addressing the problem.
“If the same people who want to come here and play political games are the same people who sided with the industry again and again and again, and watered down rail regulations again and again and again — I want to see if they have an actual change of heart or not,” he said.
Mr. Buttigieg said Mr. Trump could “express support for reversing the deregulation that happened on his watch.”
“I heard him say he had nothing to do with it even though it was in his administration,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “So if he had nothing to do with it, and they did it in his administration against his will, maybe he could come out and say that he supports us moving in a different direction.”
The changes on Mr. Trump’s watch included repealing a rule that called for making changes to brake systems, and investigators said that the train’s crew tried to stop the train moments before it derailed.
Despite Mr. Buttigieg’s criticism of deregulation under Mr. Trump, he had not previously called new railroad regulations during his two years running the Transportation Department.
President Biden also reversed scores of Mr. Trump’s actions. In his first week in office, Mr. Biden issued more than three dozen executive orders to reverse Trump policies, including halting the construction of a wall along the southern border, but not the train brake regulation.
In East Palestine, Mr. Buttigieg vowed that the administration would hold the train company’s feet to the fire and ensure residents are “getting accurate information about the safety of their air, water, and soil.”
“We are going to be here day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out, making our railroads safer, making sure Norfolk Southern meets its responsibilities,” Mr. Buttigieg said at a press conference after touring the crash site. “That is a promise and one I take very, very, seriously.”
Earlier, the National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report on the crash which said the crew tried to stop the train after an alarm signaled the wheel bearings had reached dangerous temperatures.
For NTSB, the next step will be releasing an analysis of its findings, and eventually a final report on what went wrong.
Mr. Buttigieg has faced criticism for failing to be engaged in the aftermath of the accident and a toxic chemical fire and spill.
Residents also have made it clear they do not trust the railroad company to be candid about the health and environmental fallout. They have been skeptical of whether the government had done enough and will be there to help them over the long haul.
Mr. Buttigieg said he is trying to strike the right balance between getting involved and allowing NTSB to do its job. But he said he should have been more vocal early on.
“Yes, I felt strongly about this and could have expressed that sooner,” he said. “I was taking pains to respect the role I have and don’t have, but that should not have stopped me from weighing in about how I felt about what was happening to this community.”
Mr. Buttigieg said Congress and the railroad industry do not have to wait on the final NTSB report to support rail safety improvements. He suggested updating brake systems; increasing the use of fortified tanker cars; raising the fines DOT can levy on rail companies; barring one-person train operation; and mandating the hot box detectors that, in this case, identified the temperature increase on the wheel bearings.
“We will not wait for the process to run its course to do everything we can to raise the bar on rail safety and to hold people accountable,” he said. “To any national political figure who has decided to get involved in the plight of East Palestine, I have a simple message, which is, I need your help because if you are serious about this, there is more we can do to prevent more communities from going through this.”
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