Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg slammed the railroad industry for opposing safety reforms and shot back at his GOP critics during a conference call with reporters on Monday night to roll out a blitz of new railroad safety proposals.
Buttigieg, under fire for failing to appear at the scene of a fiery derailment and explosion in East Palestine, Ohio, and waiting more than a week to publicly discuss the incident, has sharply criticized the rail industry in recent days, accusing them of putting profits over safety.
“Freight rail companies like Norfolk Southern can remain profitable while maintaining a higher standard of safety and taking better care of their workers,” Buttigieg said on the call with reporters, referring to the railroad whose train derailed in East Palestine, sending chemicals into the air and terrifying locals.
On Sunday night, Buttigieg sent a letter to Norfolk Southern’s CEO demanding the railroad drop its opposition to a host of federal safety proposals.
The rail safety proposals — ranging from increasing the size of fines the Department of Transportation can levy against a railroad to pressing the railroads to provide paid sick leave — aim to both push back against a narrative Buttigieg has been MIA from the disaster’s aftermath and to potentially kick-start a push for rail safety legislation in Congress. Any successful push in a divided Congress would likely meet fierce resistance from the rail lobby, a low-key but powerful force.
“Some of [these proposals] have been met with resistance from industry, but I think now’s a moment of potential bipartisan cooperation,” he said, emphasizing the word “potential.”
At the same time, a key roadblock to bipartisan cooperation may be the GOP’s unrelenting criticism of Buttigieg.
While the DOT has little role to play in the immediate aftermath of a crash like the one in East Palestine — the Environmental Protection Agency handles cleanup while the independent National Transportation Safety Board leads an investigation — Republicans and conservative media have relentlessly amplified local residents who have questioned why Buttigieg hasn’t shown up.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote to President Joe Biden last week to demand Buttigieg’s resignation, claiming Buttigieg was “deflect[ing] any accountability for the safety of our nation’s rail system.” On Monday’s call, Buttigieg fired back.
“We heard from Sen. Rubio last week, who had some pretty strong words about this incident,” Buttigieg said, before pointing to an October 2021 letter from GOP senators Rubio signed onto. “I can’t help but notice the last time this agency heard from him on rail regulation was his signature being on a letter that was pretty obviously drafted by industry, calling on us to weaken our practices around track inspection.”
At the same time, Buttigieg told reporters he planned to visit East Palestine soon. White House officials and the Transportation Department said Buttigieg and other high-profile officials have avoided the village of roughly 4,000 people, located near the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania, because they did not want to interfere with recovery efforts.
“I am very interested in getting to know the residents of East Palestine, hearing from them,” Buttigieg said. “When the time is right, I do plan to visit East Palestine. I don’t have a date for you right now.”
Many of Buttigieg’s proposals, including raising the cap on fines the DOT can issue, which currently stands at just over $225,000, will require congressional approval. He also wants Congress to reinstate a 2025 deadline for railroads to use safer tank cars, create new laws to encourage the use of better braking systems, and to limit the use of hazardous, flammable trains.
Buttigieg said the DOT would also work to finalize a rule requiring at least two crew members to staff trains, a proposal the rail industry has fought viciously and would create a program to increase inspections on rail routes with hazardous traffic.