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After East Palestine disaster, Buttigieg calls for stronger railroad safety rules

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The chemical smell that lingers around East Palestine, Ohio, has added to the pressure for authorities to respond. The EPA says the air is safe after a train derailment, while some residents have insisted they're getting sick. Beyond that is the question of how a train carrying chemicals went off the tracks in the first place. In a letter, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is questioning the actions of the railroad, Norfolk Southern, and Secretary Buttigieg is on the line. Welcome to the program.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Good morning. Thank you for having me on.

INSKEEP: So you assert that Norfolk Southern needs to do more to support the community. What exactly are they failing to do?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, the biggest thing that I want to see from Norfolk Southern is a change in their posture toward rail safety. The rail industry has vigorously resisted so many rules and efforts to raise the bar on safety. Now, I want to be clear. The investigation into root causes is being led by the National Transportation Safety Board. NTSB is independent, with good reason, and we will know more when they issue their final report. But it is not too soon to push toward a change in how industry approaches safety. And that's exactly what we're calling for today.

INSKEEP: Although you - as you point out in your letter, there is another agency, a regulatory agency, that's under your purview, that is looking into this. Do you have reason to think that some deficiency of regulation is connected to this crash?

BUTTIGIEG: Again, I won't get ahead of NTSB, but there are some things we know are the right thing to do for rail safety. I'll give you a couple of examples. Right now, we are in the middle of a process of driving railroad companies and chemical companies to phase in safer tank cars to carry hazardous materials. Now, under the Obama administration, a rule went in to get this done by 2025. With pressure from the rail industry lobby, Congress pushed that date out to 2029. I think that we should move that date back up. That's just one example of something that, even as we wait for the NTSB's results, we know is the right thing to do.

Another thing I think is really important right now is to make sure that we have enough teeth on our enforcement actions. Right now for the most egregious kind of violation - violations involving hazardous materials that lead to a fatality - the most that my department can fine per violation is about $225,000. For a multibillion-dollar company like Norfolk Southern or any of the major freight railroad companies, that is just not enough to have a deterrent effect. So that's something I want Congress to work with us on, to raise that cap so that this can make a difference.

INSKEEP: You indicate in your letter, Mr. Secretary, that you've already been talking with the head of Norfolk Southern. What are you hearing from them?

BUTTIGIEG: Look; they have indicated and claimed that they will do everything they can to make it right with the people of East Palestine, and they need to be held to that. I will make sure that there is accountability for any and all violations of safety standards that may have gone into this. The EPA, I know, is holding them to their responsibilities on the cleanup. But I also want to make sure in this moment that we raise the bar on rail safety generally as a country. That's why we have a three-part drive going on right now - things we're doing as a department, things that we need Congress to help with and things that the rail industry should do right away.

INSKEEP: In the time we have left...

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...I want to talk about something that's a little more immediate. We have reported on Norfolk Southern's response to this crash. Representatives from the railroad missed a community meeting. The CEO did show up a couple of days later, has been in touch with the community. But at that meeting, very notably, residents said they were getting sick. They have continued to get sick even though the EPA, the federal government, says that things should be safe, that there is not enough concentration of chemicals in the air for people to be getting sick. I recognize the EPA is outside of your department, but you're the representative of the administration here. Is the administration doing enough for the people of East Palestine?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, the people of East Palestine are right to be concerned. They're understandably concerned. If you have something like this happen in your community, then you're going to ask any time you experience symptoms of anything whether that could be connected. EPA is doing everything to make sure that those residents have access to good testing of air, water and soil. I believe the EPA administrator, Michael Regan, who is very focused on this, will be there in the community again today. But this is also why you're now seeing public health teams arrive, too, with the CDC and HHS presence. This is an all-hands-on-deck matter where you have multiple federal agencies partnering with state government and local authorities to get these residents everything that they need. And that support is going to continue.

INSKEEP: You've been very gracious in not calling me out on mispronouncing the name of the town, so I'll call myself out. It's East Palestine, Ohio. And Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thanks very much for your time. Really appreciate it.

BUTTIGIEG: Glad to be with you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: He is the U.S. secretary of transportation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.