Updated Feb 24, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Republicans investigate Buttigieg over Ohio derailment

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, wearing a dark blue suit, white shirt and blue tie.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg is facing an investigation from House Republicans over the Biden administration's response to Norfolk Southern's toxic freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio – with lawmakers in his own party also questioning his department’s response.

Why it matters: The 41-year-old transportation secretary, whose tenure has already been marred by historic transport-related crises, has emerged as the face of the issue in recent weeks and become a go-to target for Republican lawmakers.

  • Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has pressed President Biden to seek Buttigieg's resignation over the fallout from the crash.

Driving the news: Republicans on the House Oversight Committee on Friday sent a letter to Buttigieg alleging a "slow pace" in resolving the issue and requesting a series of documents.

  • Those documents include internal records related to his response, potential changes to procedures under the Biden administration, and the handling of hazardous materials at the site.
  • "As Secretary of Transportation, you must provide transparency to the American public on this matter," the lawmakers wrote.

What he's saying: Buttigieg on Thursday visited the site of the derailment after prodding Norfolk Southern to show "unequivocal support" for the residents of East Palestine and calling for the rail industry to implement new safety measures.

  • During his Ohio visit, Buttigieg said he has tried to "balance [...] my desire to be involved and engaged and on the ground" with following the "norm of transportation secretaries" of allowing the National Transportation Safety Board to lead the early response.
  • The NTSB, an independent agency, began its investigation in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Its preliminary findings, which tied the derailment to an overheated wheel bearing, were cited in the letter from Republicans on the Oversight committee.
  • A spokesperson for the Transportation Department declined to comment, telling Axios the department would respond to lawmakers directly.

The other side: Brad Woodhouse, a senior adviser for the Congressional Integrity Project, a Democrat-aligned group whose mission is to counter GOP investigations, blasted the probe as politically motivated.

  • "Instead of doing some real good and looking into their leader Donald Trump’s role in the derailment after he rolled back regulations that were intended to prevent train derailments and chemical spills, they are only going after President Biden and his administration," Woodhouse said in a statement.

Flashback: Buttigieg said in December he would welcome Republican investigations, telling reporters, "I'm absolutely ready to take our case to the Hill," Axios' Sophia Cai and Hans Nichols reported.

Between the lines: Oversight Republicans have not yet sent letters to the NTSB or Norfolk Southern, which is responsible for managing the cleanup alongside the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies.

The big picture: It's not just Republicans questioning Buttigieg. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) also sent him a letter on Friday, writing, "I understand the concerns raised by West Virginians and Ohioans in close proximity to the site. People deserve answers."

  • Manchin wrote that the department should "review its inspection practices with a particular focus on maintenance and safety," and asked Buttigieg a series of questions about audits of rail companies’ maintenance procedures, additional inspections, maintenance data.
  • While Manchin acknowledged "that future investigative activity by NTSB will focus on maintenance procedures and practices, use of wayside defect detectors, and railcar inspection practices," he urged Buttigieg to "consider what can be done before that time to ensure that we are doing all that we can today and in the future."
  • Other Democrats have pointed fingers at the department as well. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told Axios' Eugene Scott they "didn’t take the regulatory action that was needed” by reversing a Trump-era rollback of rail safety rules.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a response from the Transportation Department.

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