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Buttigieg, White House face backlash in aftermath of Ohio derailment

Biden’s team faces a test of competence — and a political headache

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, following the controlled detonation of a portion of a derailed Norfolk Southern train earlier this month. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
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The Biden administration is facing increasing backlash over its handling of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg taking the brunt of criticism over what some lawmakers and local residents have described as a delayed and lackluster response to a quickly expanding crisis.

The Feb. 3 accident, in which a 141-car train carrying hazardous materials went off-track and burst into flames, has become both a test of competence and a political headache for President Biden and his top aides, as residents express fears about potential health risks and long-term contamination of the air and drinking water. It’s also a crucial test for Buttigieg, who has impressed White House officials with his communication skills but also faced questions about his stewardship of a sprawling agency that has been forced to respond to a series of emergencies in the transportation sector.

The complaints have escalated in recent days amid uncertainty about the aftereffects of the train derailment: Local residents have complained of headaches, nausea and other symptoms, calling on the Biden administration to provide clarity about the toxic brew of chemicals that emanated from the crash scene. East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway told a community gathering this week it took nearly two weeks for anyone from the White House to contact him. Lawmakers from both parties have said the federal government has been slow to respond to the disaster and have called for a course correction.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) took issue with Buttigieg’s comments noting that the Trump administration had loosened train safety rules. “The Department of Transportation — your Department of Transportation — has things it can do,” Vance told reporters. “Stop blaming Donald Trump, a guy who hasn’t been president for three years, and use the powers of the federal government to do the things necessary to help people in this community.”

The dust-up underscores the challenge the administration faces in mounting a response to a sprawling crisis that now involves multiple agencies and the prospect of months or even years of cleanup, recovery and restitution. The situation has grown from a transportation incident to a multipronged calamity including environmental, health care, legal and housing components, among others.

What's known about the toxic plume

The crisis has a political dimension as well. Biden’s team prides itself on its competence, and a mishandling of the Ohio derailment could challenge that reputation, especially in the Midwest. For Buttigieg, a young Democratic star who’s shown an interest in higher office, the stakes may be especially high.

The White House has defended its response and expressed confidence in Buttigieg and the rest of the president’s Cabinet, announcing new actions Friday and pushing back against claims that it was slow to engage. Officials pointed to the recent visit to East Palestine by Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and said additional officials would be headed there soon.

Administration officials also released a fact sheet and held a briefing for reporters to tout their actions thus far and preview steps planned for the days ahead. They said the EPA had secured a commitment from Norfolk Southern, the company whose train derailed, to pay for all cleanup costs.

Residents say some animals have died and strong odors linger Feb. 16, following the train derailment and subsequent chemical burn in East Palestine, Ohio. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

In addition, the White House announced Friday that experts from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would soon be traveling to Ohio to meet with residents and assess the health effects of any chemical exposure. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) had requested the federal assistance.

That team will be on the ground as early as Saturday, officials said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre dismissed criticism that too much time had elapsed before top federal officials were at the site of the accident. “Hours after the derailment, the EPA team was on the ground,” she told reporters. “I just want to make sure that the American people understand that we did take action and folks were on the ground.”

Jean-Pierre also said that some senior leaders waited until this week to visit East Palestine in part to allow emergency officials to respond the train derailment in its immediate aftermath without interference.

Echoing comments from Regan, she said the administration “is committed to making sure that the community gets what it needs, and we’ll be there on the ground for as long as it takes.”

But those assurances have not quieted concerns among residents of East Palestine, some of whom say they have received conflicting and incomplete information about the safety of their air and drinking water.

The EPA has said the chemicals involved in the accident were vinyl chloride, its byproducts phosgene and hydrogen chloride, butyl acrylate and others. Images of dead fish and chemical-tinged creeks have proliferated on social media, even as state and federal officials have declared the water safe to drink. Some residents in the town of 4,700 have reported dizziness, itchy skin and headaches in the days since the crash.

The health risks for Ohioans

Buttigieg, who has not yet visited East Palestine, has come under especially heavy criticism from local residents and national politicians alike.

“Where’s Pete Buttigieg?” one member of the community shouted out during a town forum held Wednesday by Conaway, the town’s mayor.

“I don’t know,” Conaway responded. “Your guess is as good as [mine].”

Republicans have seized on Buttigieg’s recent television interviews and public comments, including a tweet blaming the Trump administration for reversing a train safety rule and a claim that there are more than 1,000 train accidents each year, which some saw as akin to downplaying the significance of the East Palestine derailment.

But some Democrats have also expressed their frustration with the Biden administration and Buttigieg.

“It is unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior administration official to show up,” Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said in a statement Thursday. “I urge President Biden, Administrator Regan, and Transportation Secretary Buttigieg to provide a complete picture of the damage and a comprehensive plan to ensure the community is supported in the weeks, months and years to come, and this sort of accident never happens again.”

The scrutiny of the transportation secretary has led to some rare bursts of bipartisanship. On Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) wrote “fully agree” in response to a tweet by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) that highlighted the potential long-term health effects of the derailment and called for “direct action from @PeteButtigieg to address this tragedy.”

Buttigieg responded by welcoming the “new found bipartisan agreement” and saying Congress should take action to make it easier for his department to enhance train safety regulations.

“Give us a call, we can do some good work,” he wrote.

Buttigieg came to the Biden administration after mounting a presidential campaign that won unusual success for someone whose previous job had been as mayor of a medium-sized town, and upon taking office he turned the transportation secretary’s job into an unusually high-profile role. His stature has been boosted not only by his own star power and the administration’s willingness to turn him loose on cable news, but also by hundreds of billions of dollars in new funds from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.

Yet the job also includes a sprawling technical portfolio, with responsibility for airline passenger rights, flight safety rules and the regulation of railroads and hazardous materials, among other matters. Buttigieg was central to the administration’s handling of a railroad labor dispute that almost ended in a crippling strike and to its efforts to smooth supply chains that had become badly snarled during the pandemic.

His broad domain has experienced a series of crises in recent months.

The train derailment took place just weeks after the failure of an aviation safety system that led to the first nationwide ground stop since the 9/11 attacks. That disruption itself came not long after a meltdown at Southwest Airlines ruined holiday plans hundreds of thousands of travelers. At a committee hearing on the safety system this week, Cruz said he was disappointed that Buttigieg was not there to testify.

Residents fear becoming "toxic town"

“Secretary Buttigieg in my view instead of engaging in politics should be focused on the job he has now and addressing the very serious transportation crises we’re seeing playing out across the country,” Cruz said.

Buttigieg has regularly appeared on television to explain what his department is doing, occasionally going on Fox News, where his deft answers to tough questions have won praise from Democrats. He has pledged to hold Southwest accountable for the Christmas meltdown, and it was Buttigieg rather than the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration who took on the major public response to the safety bulletin glitch.

Buttigieg and his allies have also occasionally turned criticism back on his opponents, pushing back against homophobic attacks he faced for taking paternity leave after he and his husband, Chasten, adopted twins in 2021.

From Democrats, Buttigieg has faced questions on whether he has done enough to hold transportation companies accountable. Some lawmakers and consumer advocates have called for him to do more to protect airline passengers, and in the wake of the Ohio derailment he has faced calls for his department to push harder to advance rail safety rules.

Buttigieg’s aides and allies say the complaints are misplaced and in some cases politically motivated. As criticism of Buttigieg began to surface after the derailment, Dani Simons, his top spokeswoman, tweeted that Transportation Department staffers had been on the ground in Ohio since day one.

“Not tweeting about it is not the same thing as not being actively engaged in doing the work on it,” she wrote.

The Transportation Department did not respond to a request to interview Buttigieg about his agency’s response to the derailment.

While Buttigieg had planned to spend much of the next year touting the implementation of the infrastructure law, he is now likely to face bipartisan pressure to devote a significant amount of his time to dealing with the aftermath of the train derailment, whether by helping residents in the area, advocating for new safety rules or pursuing action against Norfolk Southern.

Asked Friday whether local, state and federal authorities should be doing more to help the residents of East Palestine, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, “Yes, yes and yes.”

“This could go on for a long time,” Brown added. “The cleanup is going to take months.”

The Ohio train derailment and chemical spill

The latest: DOJ is also suing Norfolk Southern over the toxic train derailment. Senators questioned Norfolk Southern’s CEO on rail safety records as Ohio is suing the freight company. In February, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the Ohio train derailment.

What are the health risks of the chemical spill? One toxic gas, vinyl chloride, was burned after the derailment, sending various toxins and chemicals into the air. The EPA is handling the disaster response.

The politics: Amid a partisan divide over the disaster response, former president Donald Trump and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the derailment site.

Who is impacted? The Biden administration is taking heat for not doing enough to help, while Ohio residents are angry after Norfolk Southern backed out of a town hall addressing the response. The derailment also killed more than 43,000 aquatic animals in the area. Here’s what to know about the derailment’s toxic plume.