Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) invited Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to a town hall on Wednesday evening about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, asserting that the official has not heard the concerns of those impacted by the disaster.
Local and state authorities evacuated all residents within one mile of the crash and started a controlled burn of the volatile chemicals to decrease the risk of an explosion. Vinyl chloride, a carcinogen used to manufacture PVC, was released from five train cars last week in the form of massive plumes of dark smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Johnson, whose district includes East Palestine, recommended to Buttigieg that he should attend the town hall in which residents are expected to hear from officials about the disaster. “I’ll save a seat for you,” he told the former Democratic presidential contender on social media. “It’s past time you hear the concerns of residents affected by the train derailment.”
Other lawmakers such as Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) have contended that residents of East Palestine are victims of the misplaced priorities of officials such as Buttigieg, who did not address the train crash for more than a week after it occurred. He nevertheless appeared at the National Association of Counties Conference on Monday to comment on matters such as racial equity in the construction sector.
“We have had hundreds of train derailments after we spent over $1 trillion on infrastructure in this country, so the fact that this isn’t getting obviously better is a major indictment of the people spending the money and what they’re spending the money on,” Vance remarked during an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “Now we know, if you listen to Secretary Buttigieg today, that they are focused more on whether we have too many white men in construction jobs than he is on the fundamentals of his job, which is ensuring we have a viable transportation infrastructure in this country.”
Norfolk Southern has meanwhile offered financial assistance to some 1,000 households inside the evacuation zone totaling more than $1.5 million, according to a press release from the company. Johnson noted in a letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw that families who evacuated from outside of the one-mile radius did not receive compensation. “These concerned citizens are upset that they are not able to be reimbursed because they live just outside of the evacuation zone,” the lawmaker wrote. “The men and women I represent are rightfully concerned about their air, soil, and water being contaminated by harmful toxins.”
Beyond the release of vinyl chloride, Norfolk Southern warned the EPA that a number of other volatile chemicals were present at the derailment site. One train car containing ethylene glycol monobutyl ether currently has an “unknown status,” according to Norfolk Southern, while the amount of ethylhexyl acrylate in another car is still “pending.” The EPA issued the full list of substances present at the site only after residents were told they could return to their homes.
Governor Josh Shapiro (D-PA) revealed on Tuesday that Norfolk Grumman provided opaque information to emergency officials; the company allegedly “failed to explore all potential courses of action, including some that may have kept the rail line closed longer but could have resulted in a safer overall approach for first responders, residents, and the environment.”