Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during a visit to the train derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio, that he did not visit the community sooner because he was seeking to give federal investigators room to examine the crisis.
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 black smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Buttigieg emphasized during a press conference in East Palestine on Thursday that lawmakers need to consider new regulations for trains that carry hazardous materials. When pressed by one reporter on whether he should have visited the town sooner, Buttigieg said he was balancing his “desire to be involved and engaged and on the ground” with his “desire to follow the norm” and let the National Transportation Safety Bureau handle the incident.
“I think the most important thing is, first of all, making sure that the residents here have what they need,” he commended, “and making sure we do something for the future.”
Buttigieg, who has presided over a number of high-profile infrastructure incidents during his tenure, said he welcomes debate over his response to the derailment. “But I don’t want people pointing to the process as a way to get away from the fundamental questions of rail safety, regulation, and accountability,” he continued, “and whether we’re going to make it tougher or whether we’re going to allow it to continue being watered down.”
The official previously faced bipartisan backlash for neglecting to publicly address the train derailment for more than one week after the incident began to unfold. Buttigieg finally publicly commented on the derailment on February 13 through a social media post which said he is “concerned about the impacts” on local families “in the ten days since their lives were upended through no fault of their own.”
Buttigieg traveled to East Palestine one day after former President Donald Trump visited the community, donating aid and purchasing McDonald’s for first responders as a gesture of gratitude while highlighting criticism of the Biden administration’s management of the incident. Residents interviewed by Fox News said that the visit from Buttigieg comes “way too late.”
“They always say they care about the forgotten and ‘the little guy.’ They don’t care,” one resident said. “When they care about the people is when they’re on TV. That’s when they care about us,” said another. “When it comes to real solutions and real problems, they’re nowhere to be found.”
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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, described the mission to Eastern Europe as a “slap in the face” during another interview with Fox News.