Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, were wary of a visit from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, which comes nearly three weeks after the train derailment and chemical fallout that has since devastated residents of the small rust belt community.
Local and state authorities previously evacuated all residents within one mile of the February 3 derailment and started a controlled burn of industrial chemicals on the vehicle to decrease the risk of an explosion, which could have sent shrapnel throughout the small town. Vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen used to manufacture PVC, was emitted from five train cars in the form of massive plumes of dark smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Buttigieg arrived in East Palestine early in the morning on February 23 after lawmakers from both major parties called for him to direct more attention toward the incident. Residents said during interviews with Fox News that senior Biden administration officials have only been made to address their plight because of national media attention surrounding the train derailment.
“They always say they care about the forgotten and ‘the little guy.’ They don’t care,” one resident said. “When they care about the people is when they’re on TV. That’s when they care about us,” said another. “When it comes to real solutions and real problems, they’re nowhere to be found.” A third citizen told the outlet that the arrival of Buttigieg was “way too late.”
President Joe Biden has not yet visited East Palestine but took a clandestine trip to Ukraine on Monday to express solidarity with the nation’s war effort against Russia. Trent Conaway, the mayor of East Palestine, characterized the mission to Eastern Europe as a “slap in the face” during an interview with Fox News. “He doesn’t care about us,” he added.
The visit from Buttigieg comes one day after former President Donald Trump arrived in the town and distributed several pallets of bottled water and thousands of gallons of cleaning supplies; he also purchased McDonald’s for first responders before he departed from the community. The former commander-in-chief, who is currently running for a second term in the White House, drew attention to criticism of the Biden administration’s response to the crisis.
Buttigieg, who has presided over a number of infrastructure issues during his time as the head of the Transportation Department, faced backlash for neglecting to publicly address the train derailment for more than one week after the incident unfolded. He finally issued a public comment on the issue on February 13 through a social media post which said he is “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.”
Buttigieg emphasized the need for lawmakers and regulators to more closely examine trains that carry hazardous materials during a press conference in East Palestine on Thursday. When asked whether he should have visited the town sooner, Buttigieg said he was attempting to balance his “desire to be involved and engaged and on the ground” with his “desire to follow the norm” and allow the National Transportation Safety Board to address the incident. “I think the most important thing is, first of all, making sure that the residents here have what they need,” he continued, “and making sure we do something for the future.”