Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg vowed that his department will work with the administration and Congress to prevent future disasters similar to the Feb. 3 train derailment that led to a spill of toxic chemicals during a visit to East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday.
"The best way to deal with an ecological disaster is to stop it from happening in the first place and that's a big part of where my department comes in," Buttigieg said at a news conference, adding that the Transportation Department has laid out steps the federal government wants Congress and the rail industry to take.
“I want them to know they’re not alone. That before, during and after the national attention, they’re going to have support. They’re going to have support from us when it comes to holding Norfolk Southern accountable,” he said, referring to the residents of East Palestine. “They’re going to have support from the EPA when it comes to making sure they get accurate information about the safety of their air, water and soil.”
Buttigieg visited weeks after the derailment and after calls by Republicans for him to resign. He took aim at those lawmakers during his trip, saying at the news conference that the people who are playing "political games" are the same people who have sided with the rail industry in watering down government regulations.
Buttigieg also called out former President Donald Trump, who visited the area Wednesday, saying Trump could help the region by expressing support "for reversing the deregulation that happened on his watch." He was referring to the 2017 suspension of a requirement that trains carrying flammable liquids be outfitted with faster brakes.
"I heard him say he had nothing to do with it, even though it was in his administration," Buttigieg said. "Maybe he could come out and say that he supports us moving in a different direction."
Buttigieg met with community members, got an update from the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation on the disaster and heard from Transportation Department investigators who were on the ground in the hours after the derailment.
Asked by a reporter whether he regrets having waited a week and a half to tweet about the derailment, Buttigieg said he should have responded sooner.
"I was taking pains to respect the role that I have and the role that I don’t have," Buttigieg said. "But that should not have stopped me from weighing in about how I felt about what was happening to this community."
The administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, Amit Bose, and the deputy administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Tristan Brown, joined Buttigieg during the visit.
The trip coincided with the NTSB's release of a preliminary report Thursday about its investigation into the derailment, which involved the rail company Norfolk Southern. The train accident can be traced to an overheated wheel bearing that was 253 degrees hotter than the air temperature, the report said.
The NTSB said its investigation continues and that officials continue to focus on the wheelset and bearing, the tank car design, derailment damage and a review of the accident response, including the venting and burning of the chemicals, as well as Norfolk Southern's inspection practices.
Senate staff members will also be briefed about the Ohio disaster later Thursday by relevant agencies, Commerce Committee spokesperson Tricia Enright told NBC News. Staff members will hear from the Environmental Protection Agency, the NTSB, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. It’s unclear whether any senators will attend, as many are in their home states during the recess or are traveling abroad.
Buttigieg laid out a set of actions Tuesday that he said the administration, the rail industry and Congress could take immediately to boost rail safety across the country, the Transportation Department said, which includes allowing the department "to give out much 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 staff members at the Federal Railroad Administration "to speed up work on its final rule requiring at least two crew members on trains, a requirement long resisted by the rail industry and some Members of Congress," according to the Transportation Department.
Republicans have called on Buttigieg to resign, claiming he was slow to react to the disaster. Buttigieg tweeted last week that his department’s ability to regulate the rail system is “constrained by law” because of a braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration.
“Happy to discuss timing of our Ohio visit - but starting to think some in Washington want that to be the main focus so that there aren’t too many questions about rail safety regulation, who is for and who is against. We will hold the line on railroad safety and accountability,” Buttigieg tweeted Wednesday night.
In a statement Wednesday, a Transportation Department spokesperson said the timing of Buttigieg's visit coincided with the EPA's “moving out of the emergency response phase and transitioning to the long-term remediation phase.”
The White House sought to blame the spill on Trump and other Republicans.
“Congressional Republicans and former Trump Administration officials owe East Palestine an apology for selling them out to rail industry lobbyists when they dismantled Obama-Biden rail safety protections as well as EPA powers to rapidly contain spills,” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said.