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Buttigieg to visit East Palestine, Ohio, to evaluate train derailment response on Thursday

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

Washington — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will travel to East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday, more than two weeks after a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed and sparked serious concerns about risks to residents' health and the environment.

Buttigieg's visit, announced by the Department of Transportation, comes after pleas from residents and criticisms from Republicans that he hasn't been more engaged with the response to cleanup and recovery efforts. Buttigieg explained to CBS News in a Tuesday interview that he wanted to give the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) the leeway to carry out their independent investigation into the crash, and looked forward to going as soon as he could be of use.

"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 told CBS News political correspondent Caitlin Huey Burns. "But I am very eager to have conversations with people in East Palestine about how this is impacted them."

The secretary will meet with community members, receive an update on the NTSB's ongoing investigation and hear from Department of Transportation investigators who arrived within hours of the crash. The NTSB is expected to release its initial findings Thursday. Officials from the Federal Railroad Administration and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will join Buttigieg in East Palestine. 

"As the secretary said, he would go when it is appropriate and wouldn't detract from the emergency response efforts," a Transportation Department spokesperson said. "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."

Buttigieg's visit comes a day after an expected visit from former President Donald Trump, who has criticized the federal administration's response to the crisis. Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung confirmed a Fox News report that Trump will be donating cleaning supplies and water to the town. 

The 38 cars that derailed roughly on Feb. 3 were carrying substances including vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene — all toxic to humans and the environment. The train derailment contaminated at least 15,000 pounds of soil and 1.1 million gallons of water, according to Norfolk Southern. Ohio residents have expressed outrage and frustration over the federal government's slow response in providing health and humanitarian services. 

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that Norfolk Southern will be responsible for all cleanup related to the derailment. The company must clean up contaminated soil and water, reimburse the EPA for cleaning services, take part in public meetings and be transparent with information about the derailment. 

Buttigieg took 10 days to publicly address the crisis, a response which he now concedes should have come sooner. 

"I was focused on just making sure that our folks on the ground were all set, but could have spoken sooner about how strongly I felt about this incident, and that's a lesson learned for me," Buttigieg told CBS News on Tuesday. 

Fernando Suarez and Li Cohen contributed to this report.

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