Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited East Palestine, Ohio on Thursday, nearly three weeks after a disastrous train derailment released toxic chemicals into the air and forced hundreds of residents to evacuate.
His stop follows Donald Trump’s Wednesday visit, during which the former President criticized the Biden Administration’s response to the accident and lambasted President Joe Biden for not yet visiting himself. Buttigieg’s trip is the latest development in a crisis that has quickly become a political fight, pitting the Biden Administration and Buttigieg against critics that include Trump and other prominent Republican officials.
Here’s what to know about the Transportation Secretary’s trip to East Palestine and his handling of the train derailment.
What did Buttigieg do in East Palestine?
Buttigieg was scheduled to meet with community members, talk with investigators who were present in the immediate aftermath of the derailment, and hear the latest on the investigation into the accident. On Thursday morning, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report, which highlighted a wheel bearing that overheated ahead of the accident.
Wearing a hard hat and a safety vest, Buttigieg talked with experts at the site of the derailment. He tweeted a photo of himself there, as well as several photos of himself engaged in other conversations, along with the message, “I’m amazed by the resilience and decency of the people of East Palestine after meeting them here and visiting the wreck site. We will never forget about them and we will continue our actions to ensure safety and accountability.”
Speaking to reporters, Buttigieg called on Trump to support reinstating rail regulations that his Administration slashed. He also said he wished he had weighed in on the crisis sooner, while claiming he was trying to “strike the right balance” in terms of timing for his visit.
Confronted by reporters pressing him about his delay in visiting East Palestine, Buttigieg walked away, while a spokesperson refused to answer questions on camera.
What has Buttigieg been criticized for?
Critics have slammed Buttigieg for not visiting East Palestine sooner. He did not publicly address the accident until ten days after it occurred, even as some Democrats called on him to take action. Meanwhile, many of the Administration’s critics claimed that the federal government was not doing enough oversight either before or after the incident; the Biden Administration hadn’t tried to revive a rail braking regulation scrapped during the Trump presidency, and after the accident, federal and state officials assured residents they could return home, even as they reported respiratory symptoms and dead animal sightings.
Buttigieg maintained in recent weeks that he would visit “when the time was right.” He announced the timing of his Thursday trip on the same day Trump was in Ohio and shortly after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began its transition from an emergency response to a long-term one. “Happy to discuss timing of our Ohio visit – but starting to think some in Washington want that to be the main focus so that there aren’t too many questions about rail safety regulation, who is for and who is against,” Buttigieg tweeted on Wednesday night.
Last week, Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, sent a letter to Biden alleging Buttigieg has ignored transportation crises throughout his tenure and calling on the President to request his resignation. He wrote that Buttigieg was slow to acknowledge this month’s derailment and was deflecting accountability for rail safety. The White House has continued to stand behind Buttigieg.
In a call with reporters on Monday, Buttigieg accused Rubio of previously signing a letter “that was pretty obviously drafted by industry, calling on us to weaken our practices around track inspection.”
Buttigieg and Rubio then exchanged words on Twitter. Rubio accused Buttigieg of being missing in action and lying about the letter, which the Senator said called for more inspections. “He is an incompetent who is focused solely on his fantasies about his political future & needs to be fired,” Rubio tweeted. “The facts don’t lie,” Buttigieg responded. “The 2021 letter you signed was obviously drafted by railroad industry lobbyists. It supports waivers that would reduce visual track inspections.” (According to the Washington Post, inspection logistics mean neither is lying, exactly.)
What has the federal government done in response to the derailment?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was not able to provide disaster relief funds due to a law that prevents the derailment from being classified as a major disaster. However, the agency did announce late last week that it was sending personnel to help handle the response. The Administration has said that officials from the Department of Transportation, the NTSB, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control have been on site as well. The NTSB has been leading an investigation into the derailment.
The EPA, meanwhile, has helped monitor air and water quality following the accident and assisted with cleanup. EPA administrator Michael S. Regan first visited the site of the derailment last week, meeting with residents and officials, and returned on Tuesday.
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