U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg attends a groundbreaking ceremony for the New Portal North Bridge project held in Kearny, N.J., Monday, Aug 1, 2022. A group of environmental and racial justice organizations filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday, Nov. 17, against the U.S. Department of Transportation and Buttigieg. The lawsuit aims to halt a Gulf Coast road project that the group says will harm the environment near historic Black neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Stefan Jeremiah, File)
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on Sunday urging the company to support higher rail safety standards amid growing concerns about the environmental consequences of its train derailment in northeastern Ohio.
“I am writing to emphasize the urgent need for Norfolk Southern to demonstrate unequivocal support for the people of East Palestine and the surrounding areas, and to be a part of needed safety improvements across the industry,” Buttigieg wrote.
Buttigieg said he would soon lay out several steps to “immediately improve rail safety for workers and communities,” as well as calling on Congress to increase the cap on fines for railroad companies that violate safety regulations.
“This is the right time for Norfolk Southern to take a leadership position within the rail industry, shifting to a posture that focuses on supporting, not thwarting, efforts to raise the standard of U.S. rail safety regulation,” the secretary wrote.
Buttigieg’s has come under mounting criticism from GOP lawmakers for his handling of the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals near the Pennsylvania state line earlier this month. The incident causing a massive fire and prompting authorities to evacuate about half of the 4,800 residents in the surrounding area.
The East Palestine Fire Department last week informed village residents that they are able to return to their homes, however residents have continued to raise concerns about whether the air and water around them is safe for people, pets and livestock in the aftermath of the incident.
Buttigieg noted that Shaw had indicated that his company is committed to helping the East Palestine community recover from the crash.
“But it is clear that area residents are not satisfied with the information, presence, and support they are getting from Norfolk Southern in the aftermath and recovery. It is imperative that your company be unambiguous and forthright in its commitment to take care of the residents – now and in the future,” Buttigieg wrote.
He added that Norfolk Southern and other railroad companies have spent millions of dollars in the courts and lobbying lawmakers to oppose increased safety regulation, noting several other train derailments that happened under Norfolk Southern’s watch.
“The people of East Palestine cannot be forgotten, nor can their pain be simply considered the cost of doing business. Norfolk Southern must live up to its commitment to make residents whole – and must also live up to its obligation to do whatever it takes to stop putting communities such as East Palestine at risk,” Buttigieg wrote in his letter.
Earlier this week, Norfolk Southern announced it will launch a $1 million charitable fund initiative to help the East Palestine community, which included providing more than 100 air purifiers for residents to use in their homes.