‘There is no accident’: Pete Buttigieg visits Ohio crash site for first time

East Palestine, Ohio: The crew operating the toxic train that derailed in America’s midwest this month received a critical alert that the vehicle was overheating, but was unable to slow it down quickly enough to prevent the devastating chemical spill.

As Joe Biden’s embattled transport secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the crash site for the first time on Thursday (US time), a preliminary report by the National Transport Safety Board has given residents some early indications about what led to derailment in East Palestine on February 3.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tours the site of the Norfolk Southern train derailment.Credit:AP

“We call things ‘accident’. There is no accident,” the board’s chair Jennifer Homendy said at a press conference after the report was released. “Every single event that we investigate is preventable.”

The report found that a wheel bearing had been gradually getting hotter as the giant Norfolk Southern train, which contained 149 railcars, travelled through Ohio. However, despite passing three heat detectors that found that the train was overheating, an alarm system did not go off until the third and final sensor recorded the wheel at 253 degrees fahrenheit above the ambient temperature (123 degrees celsius).

By the time the three-person crew was able to stop the train, multiple carriages had already come off the tracks, sparking the giant fire and toxic plume that engulfed the town.

According to the report, five of those carriages contained 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, a colourless gas that increases the risk of cancer.

‘There is no accident’, said National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy.Credit:AP

The early findings come as residents in East Palestine continue to report a range of health concerns, such as respiratory problems, rashes, and unusual odours, despite authorities insisting the area is now safe.

But the small rural community, many of whom represent the white working-class voters who propelled Donald Trump to power, has also become a political flashpoint between Democrats and Republicans ahead next year’s election.

After Trump visited the town on Wednesday (US time) and accused the Biden administration of abandoning residents, Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg travelled to East Palestine on Thursday morning to meet local officials and tour the crash site.

The former Indiana mayor and presidential aspirant is regarded as one of the Biden administration’s most cut-through communicators.

But Buttigieg has come under fire in recent weeks for being missing in action, and for taking until February 13 – ten days after the derailment – to make his first comments about the incident, albeit in the form of a tweet, saying he was “concerned about the impacts” on residents.

Asked today if he had waited too long given the gravity of the disaster, he replied: “The answer to your question is yes. I felt very strongly about this and could have expressed that sooner.”

But he also said federal agencies were on the ground from the start, and that if Trump was genuinely concerned, the former president ought to support the Biden administration’s push for more safety measures and tougher rules for rail companies, which had spent years successfully lobbying against greater regulations.

Melissa Smith took this photo of the train fire from her farm in East Palestine, Ohio, on Friday, February 3.Credit:AP

“One thing he could do is express support for reversing the deregulation that happened on his watch,” Buttigieg said.

“To any national figure who has decided to get involved, I have a simple message, which is: I need your help. Because if you’re serious about this, there is more that we can do to prevent more communities from going through this.”

As the cleanup continues around East Palestine, residents will attend a community meeting tonight demanding more assurance that they are safe.

Celebrity activist Erin Brockovich will also hold a meeting tomorrow night with a group of lawyers seeking justice for those affected. Separately, at least half a dozen lawsuits have already been filed by various firms.

Situated near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, East Palestine is a former factory town of about 4500 people, where the average household income is $46,000 USD.

Beth Knott, who has lived here for 17 years, told The Age/Sydney Morning Herald that the derailment had rocked the tight-knit community, and residents did not know who or what to believe.

“I would like to have concrete, truthful answers about the soil and the health of people who breathed int the toxic plume,” she said. “Are the children going to be able to play in the creek again?”

Many also want the rail industry overhauled, noting that under the current rules, the Norfolk Southern-owned train at the centre of the derailment was not even classified as a “High Hazard Flammable Train”.

The company has also had 1518 safety, environmental and employee violations since 2000, amounting to $US70 million in fines.

“We do need more regulation,” said Melissa Boyer, who lives about 2000 feet from the rail line. “We also need better maintenance on them and even more tracks. Right now, it’s just not safe.”

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