Chris Lange, FISM News
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is facing bipartisan calls for information about his department’s oversight of the U.S. freight train system in the wake of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine that triggered the release of deadly chemicals into the air, ground, and nearby waterways.
On Thursday, another train carrying hazardous materials derailed in a town near Detroit, Michigan. Local authorities said that there was “no evidence” that hazardous materials were exposed but asked residents to avoid the area pending an investigation.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) sent a letter to Buttigieg on Wednesday demanding information about his department’s oversight of the U.S. freight train system.
The letter makes specific reference to precision-scheduled railroading (PSR) used by rail companies such as Norfolk Southern to “increase efficiency and drive down costs by moving more freight with fewer workers,” pointing out that “[c]urrent and former rail workers, industry observers, and reform advocates” have pointed to PSR “as a potential contributor to the accident.”
The GOP senators expressed concern over what they described as the Biden administration’s “prioritizing of efficiency over resilience in its national infrastructure and transportation systems” and asked why the U.S. Transportation Department deemed that a crew of three rail workers could “effectively monitor 150 cars.” Several media outlets have reported that the derailed train was operated by only two rail workers and one trainee. Senators Rubio and Vance also demanded to know why the derailed train was not classified as a “‘high-hazard flammable train,’ despite carrying highly hazardous, flammable material.”
The lawmakers also called for information on the impact of PSR “on the rate of axle bearings overheating.” The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had identified a mechanical issue with a railcar axle as the likely cause of the derailment.
OMAR, CRUZ UNITE IN CALL FOR ACTION
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) also called for a congressional inquiry and “direct action” from Buttigieg earlier this week, asserting in a tweet that the train derailment “will have a significant negative impact on the health and wellbeing of the residents for decades.”
“Fully agree,” Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz wrote in response to Omar’s post.
Buttigieg replied cheerfully: “Glad to see newfound bipartisan agreement here,” before shifting responsibility to Congress.
“We could start by discussing immediate steps Congress could take to address rail safety & reduce constraints on USDOT in this area. Give us a call, we can do some good work,” he said.
BUTTIGIEG BLAMES TRUMP ADMINISTRATION
Buttigieg earlier this week blamed the Trump administration for the disaster. The Transportation Secretary complained in a Feb. 14 tweet that his agency is “constrained by law” due to the prior administration’s decision to nix a measure that would have required the installation of electronic braking systems on certain trains carrying flammable materials.
The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the rule followed a 2015 Congressional mandate that additional research and a cost-benefit analysis of the technology must be undertaken prior to its implementation.
‘WHERE’S PETE BUTTIGIEG?’
The criticism levied at Buttigieg is not just limited to lawmakers. Above the din of the crowd at Wednesday’s packed town hall meeting in East Palestine, where local officials tried to address the concerns and questions of hundreds of affected residents, one man could be heard shouting “Where’s Pete Buttigieg? Where’s he at?” Fox News reported.
“I don’t know. Your guess is as good as me,” East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway replied, adding that Tuesday — a full 11 days after the derailment — was the first time he had “heard anything from the White House.”
NORFOLK SOUTHERN EXECS A NO-SHOW AT TOWN HALL
During the meeting, Conway also expressed frustration with executives from Norfolk Southern who pulled out of the town hall at the last minute, citing “safety concerns.” Residents of the small Ohio town that borders Pennsylvania have expressed fear, anger, and mistrust of officials in the aftermath of the derailment. Many have reported a persistent chemical smell in the air, respiratory problems, and other symptoms, as well as a significant number of animal and fish deaths, nearly two weeks after being told that it was safe to return to their homes following a two-day evacuation.
“Norfolk Southern didn’t show up,” Conway told the crowd. “The people want answers. I want answers.”
A representative for the rail company issued a statement explaining its decision to pull out of the meeting.
“Unfortunately, after consulting with community leaders, we have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties,” Norfolk Southern in a statement.
At least four lawsuits have been filed against Norfolk Southern over the derailment. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said that his office is considering legal action against the rail operator.
Federal partners from the Environmental Protection Agency remained onsite Friday and have been conducting indoor and outdoor air quality tests.
This article was partially informed by Axios and Reuters reports.