Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg traveled to East Palestine, Ohio, Thursday, to look at the wreckage of the Norfolk Southern train that derailed there on February 3, causing a toxic spill and subsequent chemical fire that forced thousands of people to evacuate.
Buttigieg met with cleanup crews and local officials, and, afterward, called for tougher regulations on the rail industry, as well as help from critics of the Biden administration’s response to the accident, including Congressional Republicans and former President Donald Trump, who visited the town Wednesday.
“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’re serious about this, there is more that we could do to prevent more communities from going through this,” he said.
Buttigieg has been criticized for not coming to the site sooner. He admitted it was a mistake for him to wait 10 days before commenting on the derailment and chemical fire in the town.
“I felt strongly about this and could have expressed that sooner,” he said. “I was taking pains to respect the role that I have [in the response to the derailment]…but that should not have stopped me from weighing in about how I felt about what was happening.”
He praised the local residents and officials he’d met. “The resilience, the resolve and the decency of this community, as they have gone through both this disaster’s immediate impact and the swirl of national and international and political attention that’s come their way, their decency and resolve has been inspiring.”
Buttigieg said he’d be watching the crash investigation for evidence of whether this accident could have been prevented. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board found that “hotbox” detectors along the Norfolk Southern track did not detect problems with an axle bearing on the train in time to prevent the disaster.
“I think we need to look at…did the railroad make the right decisions?” Buttigieg said. “And…should we lay out a little more clearly what those decisions should be so it’s not up to them. And that’s the regulatory part.”
Buttigieg has laid out a proposal to improve rail safety, including raising fines for safety infractions, stronger railcar standards, and other requirements, including that all trains have at least two crew members working on them.
He also said his agency will revisit an Obama-era requirement for modern electronic brakes on high-hazard trains. After lobbying by the railroad industry, the Trump administration did away with that requirement, but only after Congress weakened it by forcing the rule to pass a cost-benefit analysis.
“I am asking my staff to conduct a stepped-up analysis on anything we may have missed, any angle that we weren’t looking at or anything that, for example, in a benefit-cost analysis might actually change, now that we have …some of the data from this incident.”
He also said the fact that the train was not considered a ‘high hazard flammable train’ – a designation that carries stronger railcar and notification requirements – needs to change.
“At a common sense level, you ask yourself, there’s a category called ‘high-hazard flammable train,’ and this train that led to that toxic cloud and that consequence to this community wasn’t in it. What’s going on there?” he said.
Buttigieg said requiring more trains to have modern braking systems would be a lot easier to do if Congress passes new legislation. He also called on Norfolk Southern to not only fulfill its obligation to the East Palestine community but to support stronger regulations for rail safety.
“They need to go way, way beyond the legal minimum here. And they need to lead the railroad industry shifting its posture to stop fighting us tooth and nail every time we try to use the tools that we have in the administration to make freight rail safe.”