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Buttigieg confronted on Biden response to Ohio derailment disaster

By Jake Beardslee · January 24, 2024

In brief…

  • Jake Tapper pressed Buttigieg on lack of federal disaster declaration for East Palestine.
  • Buttigieg said he didn't know legalities but Transportation Dept. taking steps for railroad safety.
  • Biden appointed recovery coordinator but no disaster declaration yet.
  • Buttigieg questioned on why Biden hasn't visited East Palestine nearly a year later.
Jake Tapper questioned Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the Biden administration's response to the Norfolk Southern train derailment disaster in East Palestine, including why no federal disaster has been declared and why Biden has not visited.  Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America/Wikimedia

Nearly a year after the toxic Norfolk Southern train derailment disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, CNN’s Jake Tapper pressed Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on the Biden administration’s response. In an exchange that aired Monday, Tapper asked why calls for a major disaster declaration that could provide additional resources like health screenings have not been granted, despite requests from officials like Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine.

“The Biden administration refuses to do that,” said Tapper. “They say a disaster declaration does not apply because it’s not a natural disaster. They say Norfolk Southern is responsible. So is that disaster declaration still just off the table for these residents who are clearly suffering?”

Buttigieg replied that he didn’t “know all the legalities of the emergency management process,” but knew the Transportation Department could take steps like increased inspections and regulations to improve railroad safety.

President Biden issued an executive order last September telling FEMA to appoint a coordinator to oversee East Palestine’s long-term recovery and assess community needs beyond the EPA’s cleanup. That coordinator, Jim McPherson, was named shortly after. But no federal disaster declaration has been made.

Tapper also questioned why Biden has not yet visited East Palestine nearly a year after the derailment, which the White House has said the president intends to do but has not scheduled.

“I don’t have any updates on the scheduling front for the White House but what I can tell you is it shouldn’t take anything more than we’ve already seen happen for Congress to act,” Buttigieg responded. “I don’t know why we have to persuade anybody to do something that members in both parties claim to care about, which is to make our railroads safer.”