Feb 23, 2023

Buttigieg Says Not Speaking Out Sooner About Ohio Train Derailment is a “Lesson Learned” Transcript

Buttigieg Says Not Speaking Out Sooner About Ohio Train Derailment is a “Lesson Learned" Transcript
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Pete Buttigieg talks about the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train transporting hazardous chemicals two weeks ago. Read the transcript here.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):

Let’s bring in transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Secretary, good to see you. Thanks for being here. What steps is the administration and specifically the transportation department taking right now to fix things on the ground?

Pete Buttigieg (00:15):

There are several things that we’re working on, even while we continue to respect the work of the independent NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, which for good reason is independent for my department, is leading the safety investigation and it’ll take a while for their report to come through, but we don’t have to wait for that report in order to take certain steps that we are calling for and taking right now. Today we’re pushing a three part drive on rail safety. Things we are doing as an agency, things we’re asking Congress to do to support us and things we’re saying need to change in the rail industry. I’ll give you a couple examples. We are continuing to drive forward on a rule that will require minimum staffing on trains at a time when the rail industry has been pushing to be allowed to have as few as one person, even on trains that can run a mile long or longer. At a minimum, there need to be two. That’s something that we’re working on through the regulatory process.

A second thing is that I’ve directed the Federal Rail Administration to conduct a stepped up, focused inspection program on routes that are carrying certain kinds of hazardous materials. We need to work on the bigger picture, too. That’s where I’m calling Congress in to do things like raising the cap on fines so we can better hold rail companies accountable when there are violations.

Speaker 1 (01:28):

But is there anything that the transportation department could have done sooner to avoid this from happening in the first place?

Pete Buttigieg (01:36):

Well, our personnel were on the ground with an hours of this incident, but I do think that every rail incident calls the question on how we can strengthen the regulation of rail safety in this country. Now, that is something that the rail industry has fought, but that we have been raising the bar on since we got here and will continue to do. Look, whether it’s the crew staffing rule or whether it’s the regulations around the strength of the tanks containing the material that transits, again, I’m not going to get ahead of the NTSB’S finding on some of the specific root causes in this incident, but we know enough to know that it’s long past time to continue the work of raising the bar on rail safety. We’re continuing our work on that. We’re asking Congress, especially since there seems to be some newfound bipartisan interest in doing something, to untie our hands and make it possible for us to do more.

Speaker 1 (02:26):

What about the rail companies themselves? Specifically in this in instance, how are you holding this rail company accountable?

Pete Buttigieg (02:34):

Well, first of all, we’re going to hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law on any violations from Norfolk Southern that contributed to this disaster. Meanwhile, the EPA is holding them responsible for the cleanup. I know the EPA administrator, Michael Regan has been on the ground today emphasizing just that. But one of the reasons that I’m asking Congress for help is that right now there is a cap on the toughest fines that we can impose, about a quarter of a million dollars per violation. When you’re thinking about multi-billion dollar freight rail companies, I don’t think that is enough to have the deterrent effect that we need as a regulator. One of many areas where I’m asking Congress to stand up, frankly, to the rail industry and go the extra mile to help us put more strength in our toolbox.

Speaker 1 (03:20):

Did they actually break safety protocols here?

Pete Buttigieg (03:24):

That again, it is the outcome of an investigation, and I’m not going to get ahead of the results of that investigation. What I will say is that Norfolk Southern is a multi-billion dollar railroad company that has stood with its peers to push back on regulation after regulation to try to water down, weaken, or in some cases remove important rail safety rules, and too often they get their way. I think that the rail industry needs to move immediately to take certain steps like protect whistleblowers in the industry. That’s something that they could sign up for today. We have a program that would make that possible. They need to proactively let states know when they’re coming through with hazardous materials. They need to finish the job and get sick leave to their workers because a healthy workforce is a safe workforce. We’re going to continue pressing ahead on formal requirements and regulations. I’m asking Congress to push ahead on rules, but industries shouldn’t wait for us to force them to do the right thing.

Speaker 1 (04:20):

You have said that you would visit East Palestine when the time is right, but it’s been two weeks since this derailment. When is the time right?

Pete Buttigieg (04:29):

I’m planning to go and when I do, it will be focused on action, not on politics, not on show. In the early days, I have been respecting the role that the independent NTSB plays and staying out of their way, but we are now entering the policy phase of our response to this. Even as NTSB continues finalizing their work, this is the right time for us to be looking at immediate steps from USDOT.

Speaker 1 (04:53):

But sir, you ran for president. You understand politics better than most, and you know the importance of showing up. Why not go sooner to show people on the ground the efforts being made by the administration?

Pete Buttigieg (05:06):

Well, again, the administration was on the ground from day one. I have followed the normal practice of transportation secretaries in the early days after a crash, allowing NTSB to lead the safety work and staying out their way. But I am very eager to have conversations with people in East Palestine about how this has impacted them. Again, when I’m there, the focus is going to be on results. It’s going to be on work that needs to be done. Because one thing I saw as a mayor dealing with multiple disasters is that there’s two kinds of people who show up in the aftermath of a disaster. People who are there because they have a specific role to play and they’re there to play their role, and do the work, and help the community. People are there because they want to be seen being there and they want to look good when I’m there, it’s going to be about action.

Speaker 1 (05:48):

But we have heard from the mayor, we’ve heard from residents that want to see representation on the ground. They think that that’s important. Can you give us any sort of timeline about when you may visit?

Pete Buttigieg (05:59):

USDOT representation on the ground began within hours of the incident, and I’m looking forward to getting there as well while respecting the independent role of the NTSB.

Speaker 1 (06:09):

Do you think the President should visit?

Pete Buttigieg (06:11):

Look, right now I’m focused on making sure that we have the tools that are needed on the ground to respond to this. You’ve got EPA there, you’ve got our department supporting the NTSBs work there. You’ve got the CDC, Health and Human Services there to look after the health side, and we’ve got to make sure that that agency response continues. I know the President cares a lot about what’s happening there. He’s spoken to me about it and we are going to continue doing everything we can to make sure this community is not left behind.

Speaker 1 (06:41):

What do you think of the former president visiting there tomorrow?

Pete Buttigieg (06:45):

Look, 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. There are a number of cases where regulations, including safety regulations and regulations that are related to rail, were either watered down or frozen in place by his administration. But I don’t know what he’s planning to do there. I do know that we have work to do that we’ve been underway on from day one of this situation. While the politics will come and go and the grandstanding will come and go, we will be there for the long haul to make sure that this community is supported, and to make sure that there’s more accountability for the railroad industry in this country.

Speaker 1 (07:27):

Are you confident in the nation’s railways at this point?

Pete Buttigieg (07:31):

Well, what I’ll say is there’s been enormous progress, but there’s a long way to go. Derailments are about half of what they were at at the beginning of this century, but until there are zero, I’m not satisfied. We have more work to do as a country. We’re doing more work as a department, and I’m calling on congress to act and rail industry to get out of the way.

Speaker 1 (07:51):

Just in recent months, we’ve seen recent air traffic control systems meltdown. We’ve had a few near collisions at airports. We’ve had this trained derailment. Prior to the infrastructure bill, we were seeing bridges collapsing. What do you say to Americans who say that they’re just not sure it’s safe to move around freely around this country right now? Is the administration really meeting Americans where they are on these issues?

Pete Buttigieg (08:14):

This is one of the reasons we fought so hard to get infrastructure funding. You saw bridges collapsing in the United States of America, and decades of underinvestment catching up to us. We are making the investment that is long overdue in our infrastructure in order to maintain safety, just as we are working to maintain safety in the aviation system. A remarkable fact that a form of transportation that involves flying through the air nearly at the speed of sound has the safety record that it does, where in most recent years, there have been zero passenger fatalities on airlines. But we have a lot of work to do. There’s more to do on rail. I am particularly concerned about roadway safety in this country, which often gets less attention, but claims 40,000 lives a year. We can’t treat that as normal or as the cost of doing business. That’s why whether we’re talking about road, rail, air or any other form of transportation, we are squarely focused on safety in the US Department of Transportation. We always will be.

Speaker 1 (09:10):

I just have to ask, because it did take you a couple of days to respond publicly, or several days to respond publicly to this particular incident, do you wish you would’ve spoken out sooner?

Pete Buttigieg (09:20):

Yes. I was focused on just making sure that our folks on the ground were all set, but could have spoken sooner about how strongly I felt about this incident. That’s a lesson learned from me.

Speaker 1 (09:31):

All right, Mr. Secretary, thank you for that. Of course, we are thinking about everybody on the ground in East Palestine. We appreciate your time.

Pete Buttigieg (09:38):

Thank you. Take care.

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