Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) expressed concern over the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to address the crisis.
Local and state officials evacuated all residents within one mile of the crash and started a controlled burn of chemicals spilled during the incident to lower the risk of an explosion. Vinyl chloride, a carcinogen that can contaminate water supplies, was released from five train cars in the form of massive plumes of dark smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, raising uneasiness about air and water quality in the Ohio River Basin.
On Monday, Omar called on lawmakers to examine the incident and recommended that Buttigieg take “direct action” to address the situation. “East Palestine railroad derailment will have a significant negative impact on the health and wellbeing of the residents for decades and there is almost zero national media attention,” she commented.
The remarks came as several Republicans criticized Buttigieg for remaining silent on the incident, which occurred on February 3. The official appeared at the National Association of Counties Conference on Monday to discuss matters such as racial equity in the construction sector even as he failed to mention the crisis. He broke his silence on the derailment Monday evening by promising that he would continue to “be concerned about the impacts” of the derailment on local families “in the ten days since their lives were upended through no fault of their own.”
Other leftists have been critical of Buttigieg in the past. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) asserted at the end of last year that Buttigieg failed to prevent the Southwest Airlines meltdown that left thousands of passengers stranded during the holidays. Sanders had asked Buttigieg six months earlier to consider rules under which his agency would require airlines to “promptly refund passengers for flights that have been delayed over an hour,” as well as impose fines for “flights that are delayed more than two hours” and for “scheduling flights that they are unable to properly staff.”
Buttigieg, who served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, before gaining a national profile by running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been the subject of multiple controversies during his service at the Transportation Department. The official took months of paid leave last year after he adopted twins, even as the supply chain crisis dampened the economy and worsened inflationary pressures. A public records request from the Functional Government Institute last month found that the Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force, created by the White House two years ago, suffered from nonexistent leadership. The organization noted that Buttigieg’s calendars during his two-month paternity leave show no evidence that he participated in any meetings for the initiative.
Buttigieg also vacationed in Portugal as rail workers were poised to strike at the end of last year and reportedly used taxpayer-funded private jets at least 18 times since assuming office, despite his support for policies that seek to address climate change. He likewise faced criticism for the system outage at the Federal Aviation Administration, which caused all flights nationwide to be temporarily grounded last month, as well as the administration’s handling of the Chinese surveillance balloon that was permitted to traverse the entire continental United States.