The usually even-tempered Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg unleashed a profanity to hit back at a claim he only visited East Palestine, Ohio because former President Trump did.
‘That’s bulls***,’ he said in an interview with CNN. ‘We were already ready to go.’
The 41-year-old former mayor and presidential candidate has been made the public scapegoat of the derailment, facing the ire of Republicans who say he and the rest of the Biden administration was behind the ball on responding to the crisis.
Buttigieg visited the Ohio-Pennsylvania border town on February 23 – 20 days after the Norfolk Southern train derailed and spilled toxic chemicals into the community. Fifty cars – 10 carrying hazardous materials – went off-track and chemicals seeped into the air and local streams before officials conducted a controlled burn.
Trump had visited one day earlier, where he accused the Biden administration of ‘indifference and betrayal’ to the community.
Buttigieg admitted to CNN he should have visited sooner. But he claimed that his conservative critics were feigning outrage for the 4,700-person town where median household income is $46,000.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg talks with East Palestine, Ohio residents but didn’t response to questions from reporters on Thursday, Feb. 23
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg finally visited East Palestine on Thursday, 20 days after the train derailment that has left the Ohio community reeling and begging for answers from the Biden administration
‘It’s really rich to see some of these folks – the former president, these Fox hosts – who are literally lifelong card-carrying members of the East Coast elite, whose top economic policy priority has always been tax cuts for the wealthy, and who wouldn’t know their way around a T.J. Maxx if their life depended on it, to be presenting themselves as if they genuinely care about the forgotten middle of the country,’ the Transportation Secretary said.
‘You think Tucker Carlson knows the difference between a T.J. Maxx and a Kohl’s?’
Still Buttigieg said it would have made little substantive difference for him to visit the site any sooner, since the immediate accident response falls to other agencies. But he acquiesced it might have assured the community their voices were being heard to see one of the better-known faces of the Biden administration on-site.
Buttigieg called Trump’s visit ‘somewhat maddening – to see someone who did a lot try to gut not just rail safety regulations, but the EPA, which is the number one thing standing between that community and a total loss of accountability for Norfolk Southern and then show up giving out bottled water and campaign swag?’
The Transportation secretary has blamed Republicans for undoing rail regulations.
‘People who have sided with the rail industry again and again and again are suddenly acting like rail safety advocates,’ Buttigieg said. ‘But it also creates the chance to call them to the table and say, “OK, if we’re serious now, let’s do this.”‘
Federal investigators say the cause of the derailment was a mechanical issue with the rail car axle.
In 2015, DOT proposed a rule that would require a high-tech braking system – electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes – on trains carrying more than 20 high hazard flammable train (HHFT) cars.
But Congress mandated a cost-benefit analysis before the rule could be imposed and the Trump administration repealed it in 2017. Buttigieg’s DOT has not made any moves to bring the rule back.
Nearly three weeks since the Feb. 3 derailment of a train carrying hazardous waste in East Palestine, Ohio, clean-up efforts continue.
A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train, Feb. 6, 2023.
The secretary has since said he wants to bring back the ECP brake rule as well as speed up the phase-in of requiring sturdier tank cars to transport toxic chemicals. The new tank cars are currently not required until 2029.
Buttigieg said he also wants to raise the maximum amount DOT can fine railroads for safety violations.
Last week Ohio Sens. J.D. Vance, R, and Sherrod Brown, D, introduced a rail safety bill that would require at least two-person crews, include more stringent risk mitigation rules for trains carrying hazardous materials and require railroads notify local emergency response teams when they are passing through with hazardous materials.