Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is set to visit East Palestine, Ohio on Thursday, the site of the February 3 train derailment that sparked a fire and a miles-wide toxic chemical spill.
Buttigieg’s planned visit comes after pleas from residents and criticisms from Republicans that he hasn’t been more engaged in the cleanup and recovery efforts.
On Friday the White House defended its response to the rail disaster, noting that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were deploying a team of medical personnel and toxicologists to conduct public health testing and assessments.
However, amid calls from lawmakers like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) for Buttigieg to resign because he “refused to acknowledge the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, until his intentional ignorance was no longer tenable,” the Transportation Secretary responded that he was supporting the EPA in its investigation. Buttigieg further asserted that the Biden Administration was making “historic investments” stemming from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package signed into law in November 2021.
On Tuesday, in an interview with CBS News, Buttigieg said, “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.”
That said, he added, “I am very eager to have conversations with people in East Palestine about how this has impacted them.”
Hundreds of townspeople were evacuated after the train derailed two weeks ago and the rail operator, Norfolk Southern, was forced to vent and burn carcinogenic chemicals from crashed rail cars to prevent an explosion.
The 38 cars that derailed were carrying substances that included vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene, all of which are toxic to humans and the environment.
Buttigieg is set to meet Thursday with community members, receive an update on the NTSB’s ongoing investigation and hear from Department of Transportation investigators who arrived within hours of the crash.
The NTSB is expected to release its initial findings Thursday. Officials from the Federal Railroad Administration and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will join Buttigieg in East Palestine.