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Ohio train derailment: Transportation Secretary Buttigieg traveling to East Palestine on Thursday

Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg via Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will head to East Palestine, Ohio, for the first time on Thursday, some three weeks after the hazardous train derailment there.

With the National Transportation Safety Board expected to release a preliminary report on the derailment Thursday, Buttigieg will receive an update from the agency on their investigation into the incident, the U.S. Transportation Department said.

He will be able to “hear from USDOT investigators who were on the ground within hours of the derailment to support the NTSB’s investigation,” an administration official said. He will also meet with people in the community who were affected by the crash, according to the Transportation Department.

The secretary will be joined by Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Amit Bose and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration Deputy Administrator Tristan Brown.

Buttigieg has previously stressed federal support for the local response while facing criticism for not personally visiting the area or, according to detractors, being more directly involved.

He said Tuesday in an interview with CBS News that he “could have spoken sooner” about the train derailment, calling it a “lesson learned.”

Asked about former President Donald Trump visiting East Palestine on Wednesday, Buttigieg said, “I don’t know exactly what he’s planning to do there, especially since his administration was anti-regulation and pro-industry every step of the way.”

The administration official also implicitly responded to scrutiny of Buttigieg’s handling of the matter, saying Wednesday: “As the Secretary said, he would go when it is appropriate and wouldn’t detract from the emergency response efforts. 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.”

The official said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency remains the lead on the matter for the federal government, as is standard, but “the Department of Transportation will continue to do its part by helping get to the bottom of what caused the derailment and implementing rail safety measures.”

The head of the EPA said on Tuesday that he thinks Norfolk Southern Railway could have been more “aggressive” in its initial response to the derailment of one of its trains on Feb. 3.

“They absolutely did not handle themselves appropriately when they didn’t show up for the community meeting,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan told ABC News on Tuesday afternoon, following a press conference in East Palestine.

Norfolk Southern had said that its representatives did not attend the Feb. 15 town hall meeting in East Palestine due to concerns “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.”

The EPA administrator returned to the tiny village in northeastern Ohio on Tuesday to meet again with affected residents, speak with officials and tour a newly opened health assessment clinic. When asked whether he believes the headaches, sore throats and other ailments reported by residents are related to the derailment, Regan told ABC News: “You know, we just don’t know and I don’t want to speculate. What I want to do is assure people if they are experiencing an adverse health impact, seek medical attention and, hopefully, that information will make its way to the county health officials.”

Regan also had strong words for Norfolk Southern during Tuesday’s press conference, announcing that the EPA is ordering the Atlanta-based rail operator “to conduct all necessary actions associated with the cleanup from the East Palestine train derailment.” Norfolk Southern will be required to continue cleaning up the contaminated soil and water and transport it safely; reimburse the EPA for cleaning services; and attend public meetings at the EPA’s request and share information.

If Norfolk Southern does not comply, the company will be ordered to pay triple the cost, according to Regan.

“Let me also be crystal clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess that they created and the trauma that they inflicted on this community and impacted Beaver County residents,” he said. “I know this order cannot undo the nightmare that families in this town have been living with, but it will begin to deliver much-needed justice for the pain that Norfolk Southern has caused.”

When asked by ABC News why the EPA waited almost three weeks to make demands, Regan said state officials had the primacy of leading the response.

Earlier Tuesday, Regan met privately with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway.

“During that meeting, I expressed our concerns and expectations regarding the clean-up efforts,” Conaway said in a statement that night. “I was assured by both that we will not be alone throughout this process and have their full support. After that meeting, I am confident that we will receive the help we need.”

The meeting came after Conaway told Fox News on Monday evening that President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to the capital of Ukraine, to mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion, was “the biggest slap in the face.” The mayor told reporters the next day that he was frustrated but still stands by those comments.

While in Poland on Tuesday night, Biden made five telephone calls to officials in Ohio managing the derailment response. Conaway was notably missing from the call list provided by the White House.

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 Ohio’s 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 one-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 Feb. 18 to help support the ongoing operations there.

Last week, the NTSB 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.”

Norfolk Southern announced Monday that 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil — equivalent to 7.5 tons — as well as 1.5 million gallons of contaminated water have been excavated from the derailment site and “will be transported to landfills and disposal facilities that are designed to accept it safely in accordance with state and federal regulations.” The company did not say which chemicals were found in the material that was removed.

Meanwhile, a “series of pumps” are rerouting Sulphur Run around the derailment site, according to the Norfolk Southern. The “affected portion” of the creek, which flows through downtown East Palestine, “has been dammed to protect water downstream” as “environmental teams” treat it “with booms, aeration, and carbon filtration units,” the company said.

“Those teams are also working with stream experts to collect soil and groundwater samples to develop a comprehensive plan to address any contamination that remains in the stream banks and sediment,” Norfolk Southern added. “The majority of the hazardous rail cars have been decontaminated and are being held on-site to allow the National Transportation Safety Board to continue its investigation. Once that is completed, the cars will be scrapped and moved off-site for disposal.”

Since the Feb. 3 derailment, Norfolk Southern said it has committed more than $5.6 million to the community of East Palestine, including $3.4 million in direct payments to affected residents.

During Tuesday’s press conference, the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania revealed that their state attorneys general are considering legal action against Norfolk Southern — a potential addition to the steep financial penalties federal officials say they are levying against the company.

When asked if he believes officials when they say they won’t leave East Palestine behind when the cameras are gone, the mayor told reporters he “has to trust the people behind me.”

In his statement on Tuesday night, Conaway announced a local effort launched to disseminate accurate information will be launched Wednesday. He warned residents not to “fall prey to anyone else that may be going around trying to scare folks by handing out flyers that simply are not accurate.”

“Something that was brought up with the difficulty for residence to find information and resources available to them,” the mayor said. “In response to these concerns, our state partners collaborated with our local EMA to put together a single source resource packet. Starting tomorrow, local volunteers will go door to door and hand deliver this packet to all those that are in a one-mile radius. Our folks will be easily identifiable and the packet will be from local and state government.”

ABC News’ Victoria Arancio, Libby Cathey, Peter Charalambous, Brandon Chase, Meredith Deliso, Stephanie Ebbs, Alexandra Faul, Ben Gittleson, Justin Gomez, Julia Jacobo, Mary Kekatos, Amanda Maile, Will McDuffie and Alex Presha contributed to this report.

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