Ohio Train Derailment: Buttigieg Sends Warning to Norfolk Southern Over Toxic Mess After Intense Criticism

Ohio Train Derailmant
Toxic chemicals released in East Palestine, Ohio, after train derailment caused massive fires and billowing clouds of dangerous contaminants.EPA Handout/Getty

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sends warning to train CEO after a massive derailment and toxic disaster in Ohio.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has sent a sharp warning to the CEO of a derailed chemical train that spewed hazardous substances over an Ohio town, after he and the Biden administration faced a maelstrom of criticism over federal handling of the disaster.

"Norfolk Southern must live up to its commitment to make residents whole — and must also live up to its obligation to do whatever it takes to stop putting communities such as East Palestine at risk," Buttigieg said Sunday in a letter to freight company's chief executive officer.

"This is the right time for Norfolk Southern to take a leadership position within the rail industry, shifting to a posture that focuses on supporting, not thwarting, efforts to raise the standard of U.S. rail safety regulation," Buttigieg wrote.

The Feb. 3 derailments sent 50 train cars, many laden with chemicals, flying off the rails in the village of East Palestine, near Ohio's border with Pennsylvania. Two forced evacuations followed, the last occurring after Norfolk Southern said it had to release and set fire to vinyl chloride, a poisonous gas, to prevent a bomb-like explosion.

Since then, many residents have fled, vowing to never return, as locals reported dead animals and sickened pets, toxic fumes that made them ill and demanded answers from federal and local authorities.

The transportation secretary and President Joe Biden's administration have faced intense criticism from residents and Democrats and Republicans alike.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio called for Buttigieg to resign. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, whose state borders Ohio, called the delay in responses from senior federal officials "unacceptable."

Buttigieg didn't publicly address the chemical blast for 10 days. On Feb. 13, he announced via Twitter that the Environmental Protection Agency was conducting chemical testing.

His Sunday letter demanded Norfolk Southern "Be unambiguous and forthright in its commitment to take care of the residents — now and in the future."

The rail company's CEO Alan Shaw issued a statement on Saturday saying he "returned to East Palestine today to meet with local leaders, first responders, and a group of Norfolk Southern employees who live in the area."

"In every conversation today, I shared how deeply sorry I am this happened to their home," Shaw said.

The company has said it is cleaning up the toxic spill and helping residents to find new lodgings and will test their properties for hazardous chemicals. 

Local and state authorities have urged residents to drink bottled water as testing continues, but said there does not appear to be unsafe levels of contaminants in groundwater or tributaries.

Angry residents confronted East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway during a town hall meeting last week. "Where's Pete Buttigieg? Where's he at?" a homeowner asked. "I don't know," the mayor replied. "Your guess is as good as (mine). Yesterday was the first day I heard anything from the White House."

Conaway appeared flustered. "I need help," he told the crowd. "I'm not ready for this. I wasn't built for this."

On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began deploying teams of medical personnel and toxicologists to conduct public health testing and assessments in East Palestine, at the behest of Mayor Conaway.

"We are committed to supporting the people of East Palestine every step of the way and we are going to be on the ground helping them as long as it's needed," said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Friday.

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