Buttigieg, standing near Ohio derailment site, says he could have spoken ‘sooner’
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, standing mere yards from the site of a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, said Thursday he could have spoken out “sooner” about the crash, which happened 20 days ago.
“I felt strongly about this and could have expressed that sooner,” Buttigieg said, describing the “twisted metal” that still remained at the site, which he had visited earlier Thursday morning.
“Again, I was taking pains to respect the role that I have, the role that I don’t have — but that should not have stopped me from weighing in about how I felt about what was happening,” he continued. The derailment happened on Feb. 3, but Buttigieg’s first public comments did not come until 10 days later.
Buttigieg has faced a barrage of criticism, mostly from conservatives, for what they perceive as a slow response to the derailment, which resulted in toxic chemicals being released into the air and ground. Several Republicans say Buttigieg should have traveled to the crash site sooner, and some have even called for him to be fired or resign.
Former President Donald Trump joined in the barrage on Tuesday, calling out Buttigieg, President Joe Biden and the EPA after touring the site of the crash, a visit intended to jump-start his slow-moving 2024 presidential campaign.
“Buttigieg should’ve been here already,” Trump told reporters as he handed out MAGA hats after speaking alongside Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio). Trump also said Biden should “get over here.”
On Thursday, after meeting with the mayor, community members, DOT officials and first responders, including the fire chief in this deep-red village nestled in Columbiana County, Buttigieg indirectly addressed those comments in a wide-ranging 30-minute press conference. “And to any national political figure who has decided to get involved in the plight of East Palestine … I have a simple message, which is, I need your help,” Buttigieg said. “Because if you’re serious about this, there is more that we could do to prevent more communities from going through this.”
Asked by POLITICO whether his perceived political ambitions had shaped reaction to his handling of the derailment, Buttigieg said, “I’m here for the work and not for the politics.”
But politics have been driving the narrative for over a week, with no signs of stopping. On Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the top Republican on the Senate committee in charge of rail safety, said Buttigieg is “desperate to salvage his credibility” and used a preliminary factual report issued earlier that morning by federal investigators to suggest that his policy solutions are “shallow” and designed to heap blame on Trump.
The pressure has tested the normally mild-mannered former Indiana mayor, who got into a Twitter spat with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio Tuesday after the Republican called for him to resign or be fired. Buttigieg took more veiled shots on Thursday, saying “anyone in Congress who cares about these issues, they are welcome to come to the table and work with us to get things done. So anybody who is interested in that, I’m going to hold them to that.”
When asked Thursday by reporters whether he planned to resign, Buttigieg replied: “I’m not here for politics, I’m here to make sure the community can get what they need.”
The trip coincided with the release of the a preliminary report from National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency, which found that the crew of the 150-car Norfolk Southern train received an alert about an axle overheating, and attempted to slow the train down before it derailed. The NTSB’s investigation will likely take 12 to 18 months before it determines what caused the derailment.
Despite the criticism, the White House has defended its response and the job Buttigieg has done, noting that officials from the EPA and the NTSB were on the ground within hours of the derailment. On Tuesday, EPA Administrator Michael Regan ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for the cleanup from the crash.
“The Norfolk Southern train derailment has upended the lives of East Palestine families, and EPA’s order will ensure the company is held accountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of this community,” Regan said in a statement Tuesday. “Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they’ve inflicted on this community.”
On Thursday, Buttigieg promised the federal government would make sure that happened.
“We’re gonna be here, day in, day out, year in, year out, making our railroads safer and making sure Norfolk Southern meets its responsibilities. That is a promise, and one I take very, very seriously,” Buttigieg said.
In the meantime, politicians — and the country — should be “wrapping their arms around the people of East Palestine,” Buttigieg said, “not as a political football, not as an ideological flashpoint, not as a ‘gotcha moment,’ but as thousands of human beings whose lives got upended … through no fault of their own.”
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