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Republicans begin investigation into Pete Buttigieg's handling of East Palestine response

By Sarah May
|
February 26, 2023

As frustration over the federal government's response to the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment continues to mount, House Republicans have just announced plans to probe the actions – or inactions, as the case may be – of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, as The Hill reports.

Buttigieg has come under particular fire in recent days for refusing – until this past week – to visit the site of the derailment and address growing concerns about air and water contamination in the surrounding area.

Oversight panel slams response

A group of 21 Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee sent a letter to Buttigieg on Friday revealing their concerns over what they characterized as the “slow pace” of the Transportation Department's actions to resolve the situation in East Palestine.

The letter began by noting that the derailment and the ensuing emergency response “released highly toxic chemical materials into the air, water, and soil – forcing residents of East Palestine to evacuate.”

As such, the lawmakers wrote, “[t]his incident is an environmental and public health emergency that now threatens Americans across state lines.”

The legislators continued, “[d]espite the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) responsibility to ensure safe and reliable transport in the United States, you ignored the catastrophe for over a week.”

Transparency demanded

According to the Republicans who signed the letter, Buttigieg must now “provide transparency to the American public on this matter” but has instead “attempted to blame others for infrastructure that is within DOT's ambit of responsibilities.”

Citing the panel's deep concerns about the department's pace in addressing the matter, the legislators demanded production of significant documents and information by a deadline of March 10.

Among the materials sought by the committee are documents and communications pertaining to when Buttigieg became aware of the derailment, details of where the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) currently stands on assessing the derailment's cause, and information concerning the federal government's handling of hazardous chemicals spilled during the event.

Reacting to the letter, Buttigieg critiqued the scope of the Republicans' inquiry, saying, “I am alarmed to learn that the Chair of the House Oversight Committee thinks that the NTSB is part of our Department,” but added, “we will fully review this and respond appropriately.”

Buttigieg under fire

The secretary's stubborn reluctance to visit those harmed by the derailment – and his indignant approach to anyone who dared ask about it – was captured by the Daily Caller's Jennie Taer last week when she asked Buttigieg about a possible trip to Ohio, to which he curtly responded that he was “taking some personal time,” had no other information to add, and menacingly snapped a photo of the journalist.

After appearing to hope that the plight of East Palestine would simply fade from the headlines and take the media spotlight off of the administration's response, Buttigieg apparently realized last week that such a scenario was not in the cards, and he finally traveled to Ohio to survey the disaster zone a full 20 days after the incident took place.

Buttigieg's visit to East Palestine was far from a resounding success, however, as he attracted criticism for ignoring reporters' questions on the ground and also for his seemingly impractical choice of leather dress boots for tromping through the train wreckage left behind.

Many suspected that it was not a sudden realization of the potential scope of the tragedy in East Palestine that ultimately got him on a train, but rather the news that former President Donald Trump was poised to visit Ohio, bringing with him pallets of drinking water, thousands of gallons of cleaning supplies, and expressions of support for those impacted.

“Biggest slap in the face”

Though Buttigieg has perhaps taken the lion's share of national outrage over the federal government's response to the derailment's aftermath, President Joe Biden has also drawn widespread ire, including from East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, as The Hill noted last week.

In Conaway's estimation, Biden's decision to prioritize a trip to Kyiv to confer with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rather than focus on the need of citizens here at home was “the biggest slap in the face that tells you right now, he doesn't care about us.”

When asked Friday whether he has any plans to visit East Palestine, Biden offered the following seemingly discombobulated response, “At this moment not. I was, I did a whole video, I mean, uh, you know, the uh, what the hell? On...” and while perhaps not surprising to those living with ongoing fears for the safety of the air they breathe and the water they drink, his answer was likely surprising.

It remains to be seen how thoroughly Buttigieg and his department will respond to the Oversight panel's information requests, but it is clear that answers are needed as to why the residents of this beleaguered Midwestern community cannot seem to command the attention of those who are arguably best positioned to help them.