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Why Pete Buttigieg isn't the villain in the East Palestine crash

Republicans think the transportation secretary didn't do enough after the train derailment. There's something they can do about that.

House Republicans want answers from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg regarding his department’s response after a Norfolk Southern Railway train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month. In a letter released Friday, House Oversight Chairman James Comer of Kentucky and other GOP members of the committee said that the Department of Transportation “needs to provide an explanation for its leadership’s apathy in the face of this emergency.”

It’s a criticism that others have thrown Buttigieg’s way since the accident in which a controlled burn of the chemicals the train was carrying has prompted serious concerns about the long-term health and environmental impact of the crash. “I was taking pains to respect the role that I have and the role that I don’t have,” Buttigieg said during his visit to the town on Thursday, “but that should not have stopped me from weighing in about how I felt about what was happening to this community.”

That mea culpa was welcome, but it also raised a question: What should the secretary of transportation’s role be in a crisis like this one? Because there seems to be an awful large disconnect between Buttigieg’s actual job and the things Republicans are hammering him over.

Since becoming transportation secretary, Buttigieg has been one of the administration’s best communicators and the steward of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure funding. He’s also been in the bullseye as the point-person for the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic-fueled backlog in the supply chain that’s helped to boost inflation and last year’s cascade of canceled and delayed flights across major airlines.

But looking through the section of the U.S. Code that deals with the secretary’s duties, none of them seem immediately applicable to the crisis in East Palestine. There are likewise scant emergency or crisis powers offered to Buttigieg. The National Transportation Safety Board — which issued an initial report on the derailment on Thursday — is the primary body for determining the cause of the crash and issuing recommendations for the future. But contrary to what Comer and other Republicans seem to think, the board is independent, and not under Buttigieg’s control.

The lesser-known Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Railroad Safety, whose work does fall under his remit, also conducts investigations related to railway accidents. Dani Simons, a department spokesperson, tweeted last week that the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Railroad Safety and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had staff on the ground to aid the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation within hours of the derailment.

But there’s not much muscle behind the Federal Railroad Administration and other regulatory agencies that report to Buttigieg. As of 2013, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office, the Federal Railroad Administration’s inspectors had “the ability to annually inspect less than 1 percent of the railroad activities covered in regulation. As a result, railroads have the primary responsibility for safety of the railroad system.”

Not surprisingly, the railroad industry has been completely fine with this system, and has lobbied against attempts to increase regulation. According to The Washington Post, in 2017 Norfolk Southern wrote to the Trump administration in 2017, requesting that the Transportation Department roll back “a requirement on new electronic braking technology on trains carrying large volumes of hazardous flammable liquids.”

Norfolk Southern also cut positions that “oversaw maintenance of equipment detectors that issue alerts if something is wrong in the track, including hot boxes that measure wheel bearing temperatures,” Christopher Hand, director of research at the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, told the Post. The initial National Transportation Safety Board report issued Thursday suggested that an overheated axle helped lead to the derailment, and that the issue went undetected despite passing several sensors ahead of the one that finally alerted the crew.

Buttigieg has pledged to advance a long-stalled rule that would mandate that at least two crew members staff most railroad operations. It’s a common sense idea for trains that can now span as much as 3 miles. But given that the train had three crew members onboard at the time of the crash, it doesn’t sound like such a rule would have prevented this disaster.

The department also said in a fact sheet that it would pursue other rules “to the extent possible under current statute, on high-hazard flammable trains (HHFT) and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP).” The caveat in that phrase is an important one that Republicans seeking answers from Buttigieg should clock well. There are a number of changes that Congress could make to improve railroad safety, including implementing past National Transportation Safety Board suggestions, giving the Federal Railroad Administration the teeth it needs to enforce its regulations and boosting the appallingly low amount of money that the government can fine negligent railway companies.

But granting more power to the federal government is not exactly a GOP priority. Advocating for environmental justice to victims of industrial disasters hasn’t been at the top of the list for them either. Aside from going on TV to talk about the issue sooner, which I really doubt is something that Republicans want, it’s unclear exactly what they wanted Buttigieg to do. But when every crisis looks like a stick to hit a Democratic administration, I can’t blame them for deciding to take a whack at approximating concern.