Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will visit the site of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday.
The secretary has come under intense pressure from East Palestine residents and other critics to visit the town in the wake of the February 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train that released toxic chemicals. He told reporters earlier this week that he would visit “when the time is right” but was deferring to the National Transportation Safety Board and its investigation first.
An administration official told CNN that the time is now appropriate for Buttigieg to go to East Palestine.
“The Secretary is going now that the EPA has said it is moving out of the emergency response phase and transitioning to the long-term remediation phase. His visit also coincides with the NTSB issuing its factual findings of the investigation into the cause of the derailment and will allow the secretary to hear from USDOT investigators who were on the ground within hours of the derailment to support the NTSB’s investigation,” the official said.
“The Environmental Protection Agency is leading the Federal response to hold Norfolk Southern accountable and make the company clean up its mess. That is how it works in response to a chemical spill. The Department of Transportation will continue to do its part by helping get to the bottom of what caused the derailment and implementing rail safety measures, and we hope this sudden bipartisan support for rail safety will result in meaningful changes in Congress.”
Anger in the small town near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border has been rising, both at Norfolk Southern for the derailment itself and the government for its response. While EPA Administrator Michael Regan has been to the town multiple times since the derailment, demands for Buttigieg to visit have been heard repeatedly in public forums.
In response to the criticism, Buttigieg said Tuesday on CBS News he “could have spoken out sooner.”
“I was focused on just making sure that our folks on the ground were all set but could have spoken sooner about how strongly I felt about this incident and that’s a lesson learned for me,” Buttigieg said.
The visit will come a day after former President Donald Trump visits East Palestine. When asked about Trump’s visit on Monday, Buttigieg said he would “stay on the right side of the Hatch Act,”, referencing a federal law that seeks to keep government functions nonpartisan. But he appeared to take issue with what he sees as political opportunists whose past policies may have encouraged the deregulation of the rail industry.
“Whether we’re talking about elected officials or anybody else showing up, there is a chance for everybody who has a public voice on this issue to demonstrate whether they are interested in helping the people of East Palestine or using the people of East Palestine,” he said in response to the question about Trump, who has launched a 2024 White House bid.
Buttigieg has previewed new rail safety efforts in a recent letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw earlier this week, demanding accountability and calling for greater safety regulations. And while much of the Department of Transportation’s newly announced efforts in the wake of the derailment focus on calls to Congress and the private sector to work to bolster rail safety, he said his agency will enhance its work as well.
A DOT news release states that the agency will continue to press to advance the “Train Crew Staffing Rule,” which would require a minimum of two crew members during most railroad operations. Norfolk Southern has opposed the proposed rule.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.