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Buttigieg visits East Palestine, Ohio, as probe of train derailment continues

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Buttigieg says not speaking out sooner about Ohio train derailment is “lesson leaned" 09:40

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited East Palestine, Ohio, for the first time on Thursday, as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released the initial results of its investigation into the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous substances. 

The 38-car train that crashed Feb. 3 has sparked serious health and environmental concerns for the area's residents, who have expressed frustration over the slowness of the federal government's response to the crisis. 

The initial NTSB investigation results found the train was alerted three times by an alarm that was trigged by a hot axle. Video showed the wheel bearing was in the "final stage of overheat failure" before the train derailed, the report said. The axle was 253 degrees above ambient when the third alert went off, according to the report. The NTSB found that the crew "took immediate action" after hearing the alarm and stopped the train, but while increasing the brake application, a wheel bearing failed. 

"NTSB investigators identified and examined the first railcar to derail, the 23rd railcar in the consist," the NTSB report said. "Surveillance video from a local residence showed what appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment."

Buttigieg said during a press conference after examining the site of the derailment that the NTSB's initial findings are an "important step" toward moving to the policy-making phase of the response to improve rail safety.

"The resilience, the resolve and the decency of this community as they have gone through both this disaster's immediate impact and the swirl of national and international and political attention that's come their way — their decency and resolve been inspiring," he said.

Buttigieg arrived at the site of the derailment just before 8 a.m. local time Thursday and met with federal personnel from the Federal Railroad Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Emergency Management Agency, among others who are responding to the derailment and its aftermath. 

The transportation secretary called on Congress and "any national political figure who has decided to get involved in the plight of East Palestine" to work with the department on ways to prevent future rail incidents.

"We're also holding ourselves to highest standards in terms of the work that we're doing and the work we're going to continue to do to both respond to this incident and to make sure that we make rail safer to everyone who is in a community that is close to rail lines and anybody who is involved in freight rail at all," Buttigieg said.  

The secretary addressed criticisms that he waited roughly three weeks to visit East Palestine and too long to respond publicly, admitting that he regrets not expressing concerns for community residents quicker.

"I felt strongly about this and could have expressed that sooner," Buttigieg said. "I was taking pains to respect the role that I have and the role that I don't have, and that should not have stopped me from weighing in about how I felt about what was happening to this community."

In an interview with CBS News on Tuesday, Buttigieg said he didn't visit East Palestine sooner because he wanted to give the NTSB and emergency workers space to do their jobs.

"I have followed the normal practice of transportation secretaries in the early days after a crash, allowing NTSB to lead the safety work and staying out of their way," he said. "But I am very eager to have conversations with people in East Palestine about how this is impacted them."

A Department of Transportation spokesperson reiterated Wednesday ahead of the visit that Buttigieg would go when "appropriate" and when a trip "wouldn't detract from the emergency response efforts."

"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."

Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Amit Bose and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration Deputy Administrator Tristan Brown joined the secretary on his visit.  

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan previously visited East Palestine and participated in a townhall hosted by CNN on Wednesday, during which he answered questions from residents. He sought to quell hesitations from residents about bringing their families back to their homes in East Palestine and said he would raise his children there based on air and water readings that show safe levels.

"I understand the skepticism, as a father. I'm a father first and foremost. I understand the skepticism, but what I can tell you is what the science tells us and that these readings are indicating that there are safe levels," he said.

Regan said there have not been readings above levels that would cause adverse health impacts.

Alan Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern, told residents during the townhall Wednesday that the company has exited the "emergency phase" and is working with the EPA on a "long-term remediation plan." 

Buttigieg's trip came one day after former President Trump visited the town. Trump praised the local officials for helping in "an hour of need," before blasting the Biden administration's response as a "betrayal." When asked about the fact that Buttigieg hadn't already traveled to East Palestine, Trump said, "He should have been here a long time ago."

The village's residents, too, have been calling on Buttigieg or the president to visit. 

"Where is Pete Buttigieg? Where's he at?" one attendee asked East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, a Republican, during a Feb. 15 town hall, according to a video taken by CBS affiliate WOIO CBS in Ohio. 

"I don't know," Conaway responded. 

In an appearance on Fox News on Monday Conaway said that in light of the fact that the president has not visited East Palestine since the derailment, Mr. Biden's trip to Ukraine came as the "biggest slap in the face."

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Thursday faced multiple questions from reporters about whether the president would visit and why he has not so far. 

Jacob Rosen contributed to this report 

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