EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WKBN) – The man in charge of the nation’s travel industry made his first visit to East Palestine Thursday, walking through the ruins of this month’s train derailment and getting a first-hand look at what’s left of burned and crumpled tank cars.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg arrived to face a large group of reporters, saying what he wants his agency to do right away.
“I am here to work,” he said. “What we can do immediately is a level of elevated focused inspections based on what we’ve learned from this situation.”
Buttigieg said he spent time with local and state leaders and the mayor of East Palestine.
“He is very focused on supporting the community and moving this community forward,” Buttigieg said.
The resilience and decency of the community are inspiring, he added.
While the preliminary report from the NTSB on the derailment was released Thursday, Buttigieg said they will not wait for the final report and recommendations before they work to address train safety moving forward.
“That’s another part of what my visit here is about to make sure that we can access how to drive the best safety improvements across our national transportation system,” he said. “We are holding ourselves to the highest standard as to the work we are doing and the work we are going to do to both respond to this incident and to make sure we make rail safer for everyone.”
When asked if he should have come to East Palestine sooner, he said he held off in the initial stages to let investigators do their work. He said he still considering if that was the right decision.
“I was taking pains to respect the role that I have and 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 to this community,” he said. “I’m thinking about whether I got that balance right.”
He added that right now the important issue is the people of East Palestine and how they are recovering.
“I think the most important thing is making sure the residents here have what they need, Buttigieg said. “Before, during and after the national attention they (the community) will continue to have our support.”
East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said he met with Buttigieg and was thankful for his appearance.
“We want people. We want doers to come. If you just want to make an appearance, then we’d rather you not come,” Conaway said. “If you are gonna help, anybody’s welcome to come, no matter if they are Democrat or Republican.”
Buttigieg talked about the 2015 ECP braking rule and said in this case it may not have made a difference. He said that the chemicals on the East Palestine train did not meet the high hazard requirement for the ECP brakes anyway. He called on lawmakers and the rail industry to work together.
“Norfolk Southern and the other rail companies need to stop fighting us every time we want to impose a regulation,” Buttigieg said. “I need your help because if you are serious about this, there is more that we could do to prevent more communities from going through this.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation wrote in 2017 that it rescinded the idea of mandating ECPs for the following reason:
“This determination was made with congressionally-mandated input from the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board, U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) and studies by the FRA, which found that the cost-benefit analyses are not sufficient justification for mandating ECP brakes.,” regulators wrote.
Buttigieg added that the fines that can be imposed on rail companies are too low, citing the $250,000 limit. He said that is not adequate for multi-billion-dollar companies.
He promised that Norfolk will pay for full remediation and said that mental health effects from the derailment will also be addressed as well.
On Tuesday, Secretary Buttigieg issued a set of actions that USDOT, the rail industry and Congress could take immediately—without waiting for the NTSB’s report on East Palestine— to increase rail safety on the tracks that run through communities across the country. That includes allowing USDOT to give out stiffer penalties for rail safety regulations violations and reversing a delay to the rail industry’s deadline to use more robust rail cars carrying hazardous materials.
Buttigieg has also directed FRA staff to speed up work on its final rule requiring at least two crew members on trains.
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WKBN spoke to Buttigieg about his actions on Tuesday. You can see that full interview here.