Buttigieg: Ohio residents ‘not satisfied’ by Norfolk Southern response

Transportation secretary under pressure over derailment pledged to hold Atlanta-based railroad accountable

EAST PALESTINE, OHIO — U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pledged to hold Atlanta-based Norfolk Southern accountable for any safety violations that led to its derailment disaster in Ohio.

In a letter dated Sunday to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, Buttigieg said he will soon lay out steps that railroads should take to improve rail safety, will call on Congress to raise the cap on fines against railroads for safety violations and expects railroads to “take action now, not later, to address public safety concerns and better prevent future disasters.”

Buttigieg’s letter comes in the wake of criticism that he was not doing enough to hold Norfolk Southern accountable in the wake of the Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and a controlled burn of toxic chemicals, which forced residents to evacuate and contaminated air, soil and water in the area.

It also comes as former President Donald Trump prepares to visit East Palestine on Wednesday. Trump, who has launched a renewed bid for the White House in 2024, has himself faced criticism for his administration’s efforts to loosen railroad safety measures pursued under President Barack Obama. Those regulatory roll backs were supported by Norfolk Southern and other railroads, the Washington Post reported this weekend.

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich also plans to hold a town hall in East Palestine later this week.

Buttigieg wrote that the derailment of the train with hazardous materials “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.”

He added that “it is clear that area residents are not satisfied with the information, presence, and support they are getting from Norfolk Southern in the aftermath and recovery.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the derailment, and Buttigieg added that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration is also analyzing whether there were any safety violations and would “act with all of its legal authorities to hold Norfolk Southern responsible for any safety violations found to have contributed to this derailment.”

Buttigieg’s letter noted that 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.”

It also notes that Norfolk Southern reported $4.8 billion in operating income in 2022 and has spent billions more on stock buybacks to reward shareholders.

“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,” Buttigieg wrote.

Shaw, the Norfolk Southern CEO, visited East Palestine on Saturday to meet with local leaders, employees and first responders and visit the derailment site to see the ongoing clean-up efforts.

“We are working closely with Ohio environmental and health agencies on the long-term plan to protect the environment and the community,” Shaw said in a written statement. “In every conversation today, I shared how deeply sorry I am this happened to their home. We are going to do the right things to help East Palestine recover and thrive again.”

Shaw’s visit came after he faced criticism for not showing up at a town hall meeting with residents in East Palestine last week, and after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said during a press conference that Shaw needed to go to East Palestine and answer questions.

Although DeWine said last week that FEMA told him that Ohio was not eligible for federal support from the agency, they reversed course Friday and jointly announced that FEMA was deploying an assistance team to East Palestine on Saturday.