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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday morning, nearly three weeks after a train derailment and chemical fallout devastated the small town whose residents have expressed frustration, saying the issue has received minimal attention from the Biden administration.
Local and state authorities previously evacuated all residents within one mile of the February 3 derailment and started a controlled burn of industrial chemicals on the vehicle to decrease the risk of an explosion, which could have sent shrapnel throughout the small town. Vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen used to manufacture PVC, was emitted from five train cars in the form of massive plumes of dark smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Buttigieg arrived in East Palestine early in the morning on February 23, according to a report from CBS News. The former Democratic presidential contender told the outlet that he did not visit the community sooner because he wanted to grant the National Transportation Safety Board and other federal agencies space to “lead the safety work,” which he says is the typical practice of officials in his position. “But I am very eager to have conversations with people in East Palestine about how this has impacted them.”
The visit from Buttigieg comes one day after former President Donald Trump arrived in the town and distributed several pallets of bottled water, thousands of gallons of cleaning supplies, and other goods intended to help residents. The former commander-in-chief, who is currently running for a second term in the White House, drew attention to criticisms of the Biden administration’s response.
Buttigieg, who has presided over several high-profile infrastructure problems during his tenure, said earlier in the week that he would visit East Palestine “when the time is right.” He contended on social media that “some in Washington” want his visit to be the “main focus so that there aren’t too many questions about rail safety regulation, who is for and who is against.”
Lawmakers indeed criticized Buttigieg for neglecting to publicly mention the train derailment for more than one week after the incident occurred, and residents started reporting health symptoms such as persistent headaches, nausea, and rashes. Republicans and Democrats, including Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), pushed Buttigieg to focus on the crisis and criticized other senior officials for their response to the derailment.
Buttigieg finally publicly commented on the issue on February 13 through a social media post which said he is “concerned about the impacts” of the derailment on local families “in the ten days since their lives were upended through no fault of their own.” He also said he “wanted to share” rail safety efforts from the Biden administration and touted “historic investments on rail safety” allocated through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Beyond the release of vinyl chloride, Norfolk Southern warned the EPA that a number of other chemicals, including ethylene glycol monobutyl ether and ethylhexyl acrylate, were present at the derailment site. The EPA published the full list of substances only after residents were told they could return to their homes and has insisted that air and water quality has not been affected by the incident; a team of Daily Wire journalists and producers who visited East Palestine last week nevertheless reported a lingering smell in the air, an oily chemical sheen in local creeks and rivers, and symptoms such as sore throats and headaches garnered merely by spending an extended period of time in the small community.
President Joe Biden has not yet visited East Palestine but took a clandestine trip to Ukraine on Monday to express solidarity with the nation’s war effort against Russia. Trent Conaway, the mayor of East Palestine, characterized the mission to Ukraine as a “slap in the face” in an interview with Fox News. “He doesn’t care about us,” he added.