Pete Buttigieg to visit site of East Palestine toxic train derailment Thursday

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will visit the site of the East Palestine train derailment on Thursday. File Photo by Al Drago/UPI
1 of 6 | Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will visit the site of the East Palestine train derailment on Thursday. File Photo by Al Drago/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will visit East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday to meet residents affected by a hazardous train derailment earlier this month on the heels of the Environmental Protection Agency getting involved in the cleanup and investigation.

A department representative said Buttigieg will visit now that the EPA "is moving out of the emergency response phase and transitioning to the long-term remediation phase." Buttigieg did not want to distract from the emergency phase, the representative said.


The department said the visit also corresponds with the National Transportation Safety Board issuing its findings of the investigation.

Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Amit Bose and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration Administrator Tristan Brown will join Buttigieg on the trip.

"The Department of Transportation 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 department said.


Buttigieg visit comes as the White House ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up the environmental disaster in East Palestine from nearly three weeks ago. On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the directive, which requires the company to "conduct all necessary actions associated with the cleanup."

"Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they've inflicted on this community," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. "As we transition from emergency response, EPA will continue to coordinate closely with our local, state, and federal partners through a whole-of-government approach to support the East Palestine community during the remediation phase. To the people of East Palestine, EPA stands with you now and for as long as it may take."

Under the government's order, Norfolk Southern must meet several legally-binding requirements in the coming weeks and months to avoid federal fines and penalties that would more than triple the cost to the company.

The company must identify and clean up contaminated soil and water resources, reimburse the EPA for contract cleaning services for residents and businesses in the spill zone, attend and participate in public meetings at the EPA's request and post updated information online as well as pay for the agency's costs for any work performed.


"As part of the order, EPA will approve a work plan outlining all steps necessary to clean up the environmental damage caused by the derailment," the agency said. "If the company fails to complete any actions as ordered by EPA, the Agency will immediately step in, conduct the necessary work, and then seek to compel Norfolk Southern to pay triple the cost."

The federal order was issued on the same day that Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro called on his state attorney general to bring criminal charges against Norfolk Southern for potential failures that led to the disaster.

"Pennsylvanians have a constitutional right to clean air and pure water and we will not hesitate to hold anyone or any company responsible for environmental crimes against our Commonwealth," Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry said.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said his administration was considering a similar move.

Shapiro's office issued a statement Tuesday saying air and water quality readings in Pennsylvania were continuing to show no concerns following the Feb. 3 derailment.

"We'll hold Norfolk Southern accountable for any and all impacts to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Shapiro said Tuesday during a visit to East Palestine by both governors, Regan, and other officials who sought to reassure residents while also providing updates on cleanup efforts, health impacts and environmental concerns.


During one stop at a home in East Palestine Tuesday, Regan, DeWine and other officials toasted before drinking from a tap in the kitchen to demonstrate that the water was safe.

"In that moment, that condition could have been safe, but that's not going to be how it's always going to be," said consumer advocate Erin Brockovich, who plans to hold a town hall in East Palestine later this week to address ongoing concerns. "We're going to have to deal with how all these chemicals migrate through the water, where they hit the wells. So there's so much more to this to ensure not only in a moment, but for the future, these people, their water and their health are not being jeopardized."

Regan, who was on hand, continued to insist that the public's safety was the government's main concern in East Palestine, while emphasizing that the rail company -- which operates in 22 eastern states -- would be held accountable "for jeopardizing the health and safety of this community."

The company also faces several class-action lawsuits stemming from the derailment and controlled burn of vinyl chloride that sent a large plume of black smoke billowing into the atmosphere on Feb. 6.


Since returning home five days after the disaster, residents have become increasingly concerned while experiencing persistent symptoms, including burning eyes, headaches, and irritated skin.

Officials have been on the ground for days trying to tamp down growing panic, which was amplified by an estimated 3,500 small fish that turned up dead across several miles of streams near the crash site.

Despite continued assurances about the safety of the water and air, East Palestine residents remain worried that people, pets, crops, and livestock had already been exposed in the disaster's immediate aftermath.

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