(CNSNews.com) – It’s been 19 days since dozens of Norfolk Southern freight cars, some of them filled with toxic chemicals, derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, but Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has not yet visited the devastated town.
Neither has President Joe Biden. But former President Donald Trump will be there today.
“I am planning to go,” Buttigieg told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi on Tuesday, amid criticism that he has ignored a crisis that falls under his jurisdiction.
“And when I’m on the ground, it’s going to be about action. It’s not going to be about show or politics,” he said.
The spill itself and the toxic smoke have left anxious residents in despair, many complaining of health problems they blame on the chemical contamination — and many asking, “Where’s Pete?”
EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine were in Palestine on Tuesday, even drinking a glass of water to reassure residents that it’s safe to do. But many people living there are not convinced.
“Well, the biggest thing I want residents of East Palestine to know is that they’re not alone,” Buttigieg said on Tuesday.
“Our department’s personnel were on the ground from within the first hours of the incident. They have got multiple federal agencies on the ground, partnering with the state, partnering with local first responders. And this has the attention of the entire administration, and will for many years to come.
“Look, the people of East Palestine deserve accountability from rail — from Norfolk Southern. That’s something that the EPA announced today, the level that they’re holding Norfolk Southern to. It’s something that we’re going to pursue to the maximum extent allowed by law.
“And I will tell you, I am planning to go. And, when I’m on the ground, it’s going to be about action. It’s not going to be about show or politics, because I can very much relate to how a mayor feels, having been mayor and noticed that, when we had disasters in our community, there were two kinds of people who showed up, people who were there because they had a specific role to play, job to do, and difference to make and wanted to help, and people who were there because they wanted to look good.
“This administration has been on the ground from day one, and that support for East Palestine will not go away.”
Buttigieg said the most important thing right now is to make sure East Palestine residents “have access to good science, good testing and good data.”
He said that’s why EPA Administrator Michael Regan is there.
“The municipal water has been tested and, as I understand it, found safe. Many people want to know if their wells are also safe and have been given access to testing as well.
“Look, that is one of those basic things that all of us need to know that we’re safe is that the water we’re drinking is safe. And so it’s a very, very understandable concern by residents. The best thing that anyone can do to offer them clarity is to get them access to good tests to scientifically confirm the quality of their water.”
Buttigieg told Velshi he’s “followed the norm” of crash response, which means “staying out of the way of the independent NTSB.”
Buttigieg said “policy” is his bailiwick:
“The National Transportation Safety Board has the lead on the investigative part. But we’re now entering the phase, where this is becoming a policy conversation,” Buttigieg said:
“So, in addition to being ready to take enforcement action against Norfolk Southern, to the extent that the investigation turns up any violations, it is also time for us to move forward from a policy perspective, make sure that we strengthen accountability and strengthen rules on rail safety.
“Today, I have been calling for three sets of actions, actions that the rail industry needs to change, actions that Congress can help us with, and things we’re doing right now to take action in the U.S. Department of Transportation, both things we have been working on all along that we’re accelerating, and new things we’re adding to the agenda, based on some of the lessons we have already learned from what we saw in East Palestine.
“You listen to these — the residents talking about what they have been through, they are concerned, they are frightened, and so is anybody who lives near a rail line, which is true for so many communities, wondering if they too can be kept safe.
“That is a very important thing to safeguard. And in a town, Washington, D.C., where the freight rail industry has flexed a lot of muscle and wield a lot of — wielded a lot of power, now’s a chance to make sure that the future is different from the past, in terms of their ability to get their way.”
Buttigieg urged Congress to get involved in putting more “fortified tank cars out on the rails.”
“That was supposed to be done by 2025. Congress, I think responding to industry lobbying, pushed that out to 2029. I think that date needs to be brought back up.
“Also, there’s the issue of how tough the fines are. So, even when we catch a railroad company in an egregious violation that leads to a loss of life, the most that we can assess per violation is about $250,000. And for a multibillion-dollar company like Norfolk Southern or the other major freight railroads, I just don’t think that’s enough to have the deterrent effect that these fines need to have.”
He said he also wants to set minimum rules for the number of people operating freight trains.
“So, those are some of the things Congress can help with,” Buttigieg said.
The state of Ohio, meanwhile, plans to set up a medical clinic in East Palestine next week to evaluate residents’ health complaints.
“We know that the science says that East Palestine is safe, but we also know that residents are very worried,” said Governor DeWine.
“They are asking themselves ‘Is my headache just a headache? Or is it a result of the chemical spill? Are other medical symptoms caused by the spill?’ Those are very legitimate questions and residents deserve answers.”
Adding insult to injury, the Biden administration says East Palestine currently does not qualify for FEMA assistance.
“Although FEMA is synonymous with disaster support, they are most typically involved with disasters where there is tremendous home or property damage such as tornadoes, flooding, and hurricanes,” DeWine noted.
“However, to ensure that East Palestine can receive assistance from FEMA should this disaster qualify for FEMA aid in the future, Governor DeWine is preemptively filing a request with FEMA to preserve these rights.”
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