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Ohio train derailment: Buttigieg pens sharply worded letter to Norfolk Southern Railway

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(NEW YORK) — U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has called out the rail operator at the center of a hazardous train derailment in Ohio.

In a sharply worded, three-page letter sent Sunday to Norfolk Southern Railway president and CEO Alan Shaw, Buttigieg accused the Atlanta-based company of repeatedly prioritizing profit over safety — a problematic ethos within the larger transportation industry that the secretary said has contributed to a number of derailments over the years.

“The derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials near East Palestine, Ohio, has upended the lives of numerous residents, many of whom continue to worry about their immediate health and safety as well as the long-term effects of the dangerous materials released near their homes,” Buttigieg said. “They fear for their future, as do thousands of American communities and neighborhoods that sit along railway lines.”

“The future must not resemble the past when it comes to your company’s and your industry’s follow-through on support for stringent safety policies,” he added. “Major derailments in the past have been followed by calls for reform — and by vigorous resistance by your industry to increased safety measures. This must change.”

Buttigieg listed several previous examples of hazardous train derailments involving Norfolk Southern and other rail operators.

“Similar patterns appear across your entire industry,” he said. “In this context, Norfolk Southern and your industry must demonstrate that you will not seek to supercharge profits by resisting higher standards that could benefit the safety of workers and the safety of American communities, like East Palestine.”

The secretary said he will be laying out new steps for companies to improve safety and plans to urge Congress to raise the cap on fines for those that violate regulations. He also rebuked Norfolk Southern and the industry writ large for their opposition to more stringent safety rules.

“Rather than support these efforts to improve rail safety, Norfolk Southern and other rail companies spent millions of dollars in the courts and lobbying members of Congress to oppose common-sense safety regulations, stopping some entirely and reducing the scope of others,” Buttigieg said, specifically noting the Trump administration’s repeal of a 2015 rule that mandated the use of electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes on train cars.

“While we do not yet know what the NTSB investigation will conclude regarding what caused the derailment in East Palestine,” he added, “we do know that these steps that Norfolk Southern and its peers lobbied against were intended to improve rail safety and to help keep Americans safe.”

Buttigieg’s scathing missive to Norfolk Southern came as he weathers harsh criticism, especially from Republicans, for the federal government’s response to the Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine. Former President Donald Trump is expected to visit the northeastern Ohio village later this week.

“The people of East Palestine cannot be forgotten, nor can their pain be simply considered the cost of doing business,” Buttigieg said in the letter. “Norfolk Southern must live up to its commitment to make residents whole – and must also live up to its obligation to do whatever it takes to stop putting communities such as East Palestine at risk.”

“The arithmetic suggests Norfolk Southern can remain extremely profitable while also complying with a higher standard of safety regulation and offering better consideration to its workers,” he added.

A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern confirmed to ABC News that they “have received a copy of the letter from the Secretary and are reviewing,” but did not offer further comment.

Shaw, the president and CEO of Norfolk Southern, visited East Palestine on Saturday for a second time since the derailment occurred, amid the criticism from residents and political leaders about the company’s response. In a statement released after his visit, Shaw said he spoke with affected residents and held a “series of meetings” with East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway as well as “several community leaders,” U.S. Rep Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, and East Palestine Fire Chief Drabick “along with several of his first responders.”

“They are frustrated by the amount of misinformation circulating about their community and are eager to show that the air and water are safe,” Shaw said in the statement.

Shaw added that he is “deeply sorry” for what the community is experiencing and promises to “do the right things” to help them recover. He said his company is “working closely with Ohio environmental and health agencies on the long-term plan to protect the environment and the community.”

Norfolk Southern last week announced a commitment of $1 million to a community support fund as a “down payment” on its contribution in rebuilding East Palestine. The company said it has already helped 1,000 families as well as a number of businesses there since the derailment and has distributed $1.2 million to families to cover costs related to the evacuation. The company also noted its cleanup of the derailment site and work to facilitate testing on the water, air and soil in the area.

On the night of Feb. 3, about 50 cars of a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed in a fiery crash on the outskirts of East Palestine, which is nestled near the state line with Pennsylvania. Eleven of the derailed cars were transporting hazardous materials, five of which contained vinyl chloride, a highly volatile colorless gas produced for commercial uses. There were no injuries reported from the accident, officials said.

Efforts to contain a fire at the derailment site stalled the following night, as firefighters withdrew from the blaze due to concerns about air quality and explosions. About half of East Palestine’s roughly 4,700 residents were warned to leave before officials decided on Feb. 6 to conduct a controlled release and burn of the toxic vinyl chloride from the five tanker cars, which were in danger of exploding. A large ball of fire and a plume of black smoke filled with contaminants could be seen billowing high into the sky from the smoldering derailment site as the controlled burn took place that afternoon, prompting concerns from residents about the potential effects.

A mandatory evacuation order for homes and businesses within a 1-mile radius of the derailment site was lifted on Feb. 8, after air and water samples taken the day before were deemed safe, officials said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed a team to East Palestine on Saturday to help support the ongoing operations there.

The Ohio Department of Health — in partnership with the Columbiana County General Health District and with support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — will open a health assessment clinic on Tuesday afternoon for any residents in the East Palestine area who have medical questions or concerns related to the derailment.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board shared an update on its ongoing probe into the Feb. 3 incident, saying “investigators have identified and examined the rail car that initiated the derailment.”

“Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment,” the NTSB said in an investigative update on Feb. 14. “The wheelset from the suspected railcar has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination. The suspected overheated wheel bearing has been collected and will be examined by engineers from the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, D.C.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — in partnership with an independent contractor — continues to monitor the air in and around East Palestine. As of last Friday, the EPA has sampled air in 500 homes and throughout the community. So far, no contaminants have been detected outside or inside those homes. The large chemical plume seen over the Ohio River has also completely dissipated, according to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.

DeWine announced last week that the latest tests conducted by the state’s EPA show five wells feeding into East Palestine’s municipal water system are free from contaminants and that the agency is confident the water is safe to drink. However, residents with private wells continue to be encouraged to drink from bottled water until their well water has been tested and cleared for consumption.

A part of Sulphur Run, a creek that flows through downtown East Palestine and is near the derailment site, “remains severely contaminated,” DeWine said last Friday. Crews are working to pump in clean water to the section, which was dammed following the crash to contain any contamination, according to DeWine.

Last week, Ohio Department of Natural Resources director Mary Mertz told reporters that some 3,500 fish had died due to contaminants detected in four tributaries over a space of 7.5 miles along the Ohio River. But those waterways are contained and not affecting water supplies, according to Mertz. Tiffani Kavalec, chief of the Ohio EPA’s surface water division, told reporters that no vinyl chloride or pre-product has been detected in the water and that the contamination mostly consists of fire contaminant combustion materials.

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