Republicans on the House Oversight Committee launched an investigation Friday into Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s response to this month’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, accusing him of being slow to respond as partisan tensions mount over what the small town’s residents say is an ongoing environmental disaster.
The panel sent Buttigieg a letter Friday requesting five tranches of documents, including all records “regarding your public response to the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment” and “communications sufficient to show when you learned about the train derailment.”
The letter asks for all information to be submitted by March 10 at the latest, though the message does not state it is a subpoena, which would legally require Buttigieg to hand over the documents.
Signees include committee chairman Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
The Transportation Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes, but Buttigieg said during his first visit to East Palestine on Thursday he wished he would have spoken up about the disaster “sooner” than his tweet a week-and-a-half after the event, and defended his decision to wait three weeks to visit as following “the norm.”
“As Secretary of Transportation, you must provide transparency to the American public on this matter. Instead, you have attempted to blame others for infrastructure that is within DOT’s ambit of responsibilities,” the letter says.
Nearly 40 rail cars on a Norfolk Southern-operated train fell off the tracks and a dozen were damaged on February 3 near East Palestine, causing a fire and spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of hazardous chemicals into the surrounding area. Evacuations were ordered for nearby residents as authorities carried out a controlled burn of toxic chemicals three days later, leading to a cloud of black smoke that briefly rose above East Palestine. The Environmental Protection Agency said this week there is no sign of air quality problems, while Ohio officials say the water is safe to drink, but residents have insisted at public meetings where they’ve grilled officials and Norfolk Southern leadership that they’re dealing with health problems as a result of the derailment. The EPA has ordered Norfolk Southern to fully cover the cost of the cleanup.
Former President Donald Trump visited East Palestine on Wednesday, distributing palates of “Trump Water” to the community as he urged President Joe Biden to “get back from touring Ukraine” to visit the area. The White House has not yet said if Biden plans to go to East Palestine. Republican officials and right-wing commentators have blasted the White House’s response to the disaster and claimed the relative quiet from top officials immediately following the derailment is yet another sign of Democrats ignoring the so-called Rust Belt region, even though federal workers were responding immediately after the derailment. The messaging of speaking out to “forgotten Americans” has been key to Republicans’ recent dominance of blue-collar communities like East Palestine. Columbiana County—home to East Palestine—was decided by single-digit margins in presidential elections throughout the 2000s, but Trump won the county in 2020 by nearly 45 percentage points.
The White House has pointed out that Trump attempted to downsize the EPA and withdrew a proposal in 2018 that would have mandated more advanced braking systems on trains carrying some toxic chemicals. Trump said Wednesday he “had nothing to do” with any loosening of rail safety guidelines.
What We Don’t Know
An initial report released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday did not determine a definitive cause for the derailment, but it noted a wheel bearing scorched to more than 250 degrees, which triggered an alarm alerting the train’s crew. The wheel bearing then failed as the train attempted to slow down. The report did not find any wrongdoing on the part of the crew.
More than 43,000. That’s how many animals the Ohio Department of Natural Resources believes have died as a result of the derailment.
Buttigieg Grilled In East Palestine: Criticizes Trump As Derailment Sparks Partisan Feud (Forbes)
EPA Orders Norfolk Southern To Pay For Cleanup After Disastrous Ohio Train Derailment (Forbes)
Ohio Train Derailment: Crew Received Alert About Overheated Wheel Bearing And Applied Emergency Break, Officials Say (Forbes)
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