Other Trump critics were more blunt in dismissing the motives behind his visit.
“It’s clear that it’s a political stunt,” said former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican and former member of Congress who led DOT during President Barack Obama’s first term. “If he wants to visit, he’s a citizen. But clearly his regulations and the elimination of them, and no emphasis on safety, is going to be pointed out.”
Buttigieg took his own veiled shot at Trump — though not by name — when answering a POLITICO reporter’s question about the tension between Trump’s rail safety record and his criticisms of the Biden administration.
“There is a chance for everybody who has a public voice on this issue to demonstrate whether they are interested in helping the people of East Palestine or using the people of East Palestine,” Buttigieg said. “A lot of the folks who seem to find political opportunity there are among those who have sided with the rail industry again and again and again as they have fought safety regulations on railroads and [hazardous materials] tooth and nail.”
Buttigieg said he was trying to be careful not to violate the Hatch Act, which restricts federal employees’ political speech, by speaking about a presidential candidate from his position as Cabinet secretary.
Ahead of Wednesday’s appearance, the Democratic National Committee sent reporters a list of Trump’s deregulation efforts, with the subject line: “REMINDER: Trump Slashed Transportation Safety and Environmental Rules, Funding.”
A spokesperson for Trump defended his record and said that he was not to blame for the tragedy in East Palestine.
Trump, who launched his latest presidential bid in November, said on his social media network Truth Social that he was venturing to Ohio to visit “great people who need help, NOW!”
On Wednesday Trump appeared in East Palestine, bringing with him Trump-branded water and cleaning supplies. Speaking in front of an East Palestine Fire Department truck, Trump took shots at the Biden administration’s response, including the EPA, Buttigieg and even Biden himself.
While handing out red MAGA hats, Trump told reporters, “Buttigieg should’ve been here already.” He also had a message for Biden: “Get over here.”
Buttigieg plans to travel to East Palestine Thursday, after taking intense heat from Republicans for not going sooner. The Biden administration has said that high-ranking officials, aside from EPA chief Michael Regan, did not visit East Palestine in the derailment’s immediate aftermath to comply with the evacuation order in place and to avoid impeding investigation and emergency response efforts.
Trump also called on Norfolk Southern to “fulfill its responsibilities and obligations” to the village. The EPA formally put the rail company on the hook Tuesday for covering all costs of the clean up, which the railroad had already pledged to do.
“If our ‘leaders’ are too afraid to actually lead real leaders will step up and fill the void,” his son Donald Trump Jr. wrote on Twitter last week.
Among other criticisms, lawmakers of both parties have questioned DOT’s oversight of the railroad industry’s labor and safety practices in light of the fiery Ohio crash, which unleashed plumes of toxic smoke and left lingering worries about air and water contamination. They have also faulted the Biden administration for not sending any senior leaders to the derailment site until EPA Administrator Michael Regan traveled there last week.
Buttigieg has not yet gone there but said he plans to, and the heads of DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration and its hazardous materials agency are expected to be in East Palestine on Wednesday. Biden administration officials have said that top leaders held off from visiting the site to comply with evacuation orders and to avoid creating a distraction. Still, lower-level investigators and employees from agencies such as the FRA and EPA swarmed to East Palestine within hours after the 150-car Norfolk Southern train went off the track with a cargo that included flammable chemicals such as vinyl chloride.
Because the disaster was a chemical spill, White House officials said, Regan was the lead agency official tasked with responding. Regan’s agency has faced skepticism from residents about its assurances that East Palestine’s air is safe to breathe, despite a lingering odor that has left residents in the village complaining about rashes and headaches.
Buttigieg told reporters Monday that he plans to go to the site “when the time is right.”
“I am very interested in getting to know the residents of East Palestine and hearing from them about how they’ve been impacted and communicating with them about the steps that we were taking,” he said.
Even some less partisan observers have questioned why the Biden administration didn’t send a high-profile official sooner to show its support for people in East Palestine.
“There’s a tremendous value when a catastrophe occurs of a high-ranking official taking charge,” William Reilly, who led EPA during the George H.W. Bush administration, told POLITICO’s E&E News for a story Tuesday. He said the purpose of those visits can include “communicating to the locally impacted people and to the country. The communication part is enormously important. And that did not happen here.”
Local and state political leaders said they welcome high-level attention — to a point. They include East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, a registered Republican who on Monday had called President Joe Biden’s decision to visit Ukraine before coming to his Ohio village “the biggest slap in the face.”
At a news conference Tuesday, Conaway said Trump is welcome to visit but that he does not want the village to become “political pawns.”
“We don’t want to be a soundbite or a news bite,” Conaway said. “We just want to go back to living our lives the way they were.”
A spokesperson for Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Daniel Tierney, declined to comment when asked whether Trump is welcome in East Palestine.
One senior administration official, granted anonymity to speak freely because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said Biden’s appointees are “supporting people in East Palestine” while Trump and other Republicans “see the people there as political props.”
“Trump’s visit validates that this is all about politics for him and Republicans who have been quick to criticize and bizarrely blame Secretary Pete yet are the same people who have done Norfolk Southern’s bidding on rolling back major safety requirements,” said the official. “Trump more than anyone.”
Watering down rail regs
As president, Trump made rescinding regulations a major priority for his agencies, even signing an order requiring them to revoke two rules for every one they enact. At the same time, he said he wanted to “ensure that America has among the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet.”
His administration’s most high-profile action on rail safety was its withdrawal of a 2015 rule mandating more advanced brakes on some trains carrying especially hazardous materials.
That withdrawal, however, stemmed from intervention by Congress, which required regulators to put the rule through a more stringent cost-benefit analysis after the Obama administration had issued the regulation. The rule ultimately failed that analysis.
Even if that rule had taken effect, it would not have applied to the train that derailed in East Palestine, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board — the lead agency investigating the crash — wrote on Twitter last week. Still, environmental groups pressed Buttigieg last week to restore the Obama-era brake rule, writing that “[i]t should not take a tragedy like the recent hazardous train derailment in Ohio … to turn attention to this issue again.”
Trump’s DOT also took several rulemaking actions sought by railroad companies that could weaken safety, including its withdrawal of a rule requiring that a crew of at least two people be present on freight trains. The Obama administration had proposed that rule in response to a fiery oil-train derailment that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.
The Trump administration argued that “a train crew staffing rule would unnecessarily impede the future of rail innovation and automation.”
Railroad companies say no factual justification exists for mandating crews of more than one person. Such a requirement, they argue, would make U.S. railroads less competitive and could even undermine climate efforts if it makes shippers turn to trucking, which emits more pollution than trains do.
The Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio had three crew members aboard. After the derailment, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) asked in a letter to Buttigieg whether that was too few people to control such a long train.
The Trump administration also dropped a ban on shipping liquefied natural gas by rail tank car, saying the expansion of U.S. natural gas production necessitated the rollback. The ban had been a response to concerns about possible explosions.
In addition, Trump’s Federal Railroad Administration stopped conducting regular rail safety audits of railroads — which the Biden administration later reinstituted — and allowed railroads to replace some human safety inspections with automation.
Under Trump, “railroads could apply for relief from federal regulations, and FRA would grant them,” said Gregory Hynes, the national legislative director of the country’s largest rail union, SMART Transportation Division.
“It’s really shocking what they’ve been able to get away with,” he said.
On chemicals, a rollback of ‘almost everything’
Advocates of tougher regulations on toxic chemicals expressed just as much frustration.
Under Trump, “there was a rollback of, you know, almost everything,” said Sonya Lunder, the Sierra Club’s senior toxics adviser.
Trump’s EPA repealed regulations intended to prevent chemical accidents at industrial facilities and rolled back requirements for companies to regularly assess whether safer technologies or practices have become available. It also withdrew requirements that companies have third-party audits to determine the root causes of accidents.
The Biden administration last year proposed reinstating all those requirements.
Public health advocates also criticized the Trump administration’s implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act, a longstanding law that Congress gave a bipartisan overhaul in 2016.
Advocates say the law was designed to require EPA to look at the overall health dangers of chemicals, but the Trump administration took steps to look at risks in only a piecemeal fashion. For instance, it declined to factor in chemicals Americans breathe from the air or drink in their water, limiting analyses to only direct exposure from products or uses. The Biden administration has reversed that policy and reconsidered some chemicals’ risks, with potential restrictions or bans on the way.
A federal court in 2019 faulted the Trump-era EPA for avoiding studying certain health risks of some chemicals like asbestos.
Trump’s political appointees also overruled career scientists on a health assessment for a type of PFAS, or so-called “forever chemicals,” that contaminates almost a million Americans’ drinking water and tried to bury internal reports that warned of unsafe chemicals in the air and water.
In addition, Trump proposed shuttering the Chemical Safety Board, a tiny agency that investigates accidents at industrial facilities but has no regulatory or enforcement power.
These rollbacks were carried out by several political appointees with industry ties. Those included Nancy Beck, a former expert for the trade group American Chemistry Council, who became the top political appointee in EPA’s chemical office and limited the agency’s study of hazardous chemicals. Trump later tried to appoint Beck to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, but her nomination stalled in the Senate.
Kayla Guo contributed to this report.