WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will visit East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday to view the site of the recent train derailment that led to a spill of toxic chemicals into the community.
Buttigieg plans to meet with community members, get an update from the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation and hear from Transportation Department investigators who were on the ground in the hours after the Feb. 3 derailment, the department said.
A spokesperson said a statement Wednesday that Buttigieg had said he would visit the area when it was appropriate to do so and when it would not detract from emergency response efforts.
The visit will coincide with the NTSB's release of a preliminary report Thursday about its investigation into the derailment.
"The secretary is going now that the EPA has said it is moving out of the emergency response phase and transitioning to the long-term remediation phase," the spokesperson said. "His visit also coincides with the NTSB issuing its factual findings of the investigation into the cause of the derailment and will allow the secretary to hear from USDOT investigators who were on the ground within hours of the derailment to support the NTSB’s investigation."
The Transportation Department "will continue to do its part by helping get to the bottom of what caused the derailment and implementing rail safety measures, and we hope this sudden bipartisan support for rail safety will result in meaningful changes in Congress," the statement added.
Former President Donald Trump visited the area Wednesday.
Republicans have called on Buttigieg to resign, claiming he has been slow to react to the disaster. Buttigieg, however, 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last week that his department's ability to regulate the rail system is “constrained by law” because of a braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration.
The White House sought Wednesday 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 in a statement.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended Buttigieg last week when she was asked about the criticisms from Republicans as well as Democrats.
"We do have absolute confidence" in Buttigieg, Jean-Pierre said at a news briefing.
On Tuesday, Michael Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced a sweeping enforcement action to compel Norfolk Southern, the rail company involved in the accident, to conduct and pay for cleanup actions associated with the derailment of the 150-car train, which carried toxic chemicals.
The order requires the company to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water; pay any EPA costs, including reimbursing it for cleaning services it will offer residents and businesses; and participate in public meetings at the EPA’s request and post information online.
In a statement, Norfolk Southern said: “We recognize that we have a responsibility, and we have committed to doing what’s right for the residents of East Palestine. We have been paying for the cleanup activities to date and will continue to do so.”
East Palestine is near the Pennsylvania border, and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said Tuesday that his office had made a criminal referral in response to the derailment. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signaled his state attorney general is also preparing to take legal action.