Finger-pointing flies from lawmakers over Ohio train derailment and spill

Lawmakers are doling out blame and demanding answers on the train derailment in Ohio.

Legislators from both parties are expressing frustration and asking for more to be done, though Republicans in particular have put Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg directly in the hot seat. 

“Secretary Buttigieg is nowhere to be found on this issue. It really is a remarkable thing that he hasn't gone to East Palestine to see what happened there,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said on Fox Business this week. “He hasn't come to Congress to explain what happened. For whatever reason, the Secretary seems to fill his days with politics. I know he has aspirations, but he actually has a day job.”

Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) floated impeaching Buttigieg over how he has handled the derailment.

"I hope he does resign, and if he doesn't, there's a long list of impeachment criteria,” Davidson told conservative outlet Real America’s Voice Thursday. “I never would have thought we'd see a point where we need to impeach a Secretary of Transportation, but daggon, how many failures have to happen on his watch before we call it?"

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said this week that the White House has “absolute confidence” in Buttigieg.

The derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3 released chemicals, including toxic vinyl chloride, into the surrounding community, prompting a temporary evacuation. 

State and federal authorities have said that the area’s air and water are now safe, but residents remain fearful and concerned. 

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are questioning Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) about why it isn’t providing emergency assistance. 

Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who represents East Palestine, led a letter signed by the entire Ohio congressional delegation urging FEMA to provide assistance.

Johnson also told The Hill in a written statement that there may be room for congressional or administrative action once investigations on the issue are complete. 

 “Congress and the administration must take a close look at the findings to determine what policies to modify and/or implement to better prevent anything like this from happening again,” he said. 

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has called on Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) to declare an emergency, though DeWine’s office has said that it was told by FEMA that it was not eligible for assistance. 

A FEMA official told reporters Friday that the agency “continues to have ongoing conversations with the governor’s office” on the state’s support needs. Administration officials also emphasized a commitment from Norfolk Southern to pay for cleanup and other costs.

Beyond the issue of FEMA, Republicans have sent mixed messages on water quality.

The state has said testing indicated that municipal water in East Palestine is safe, but DeWine has also told residents to drink bottled water out of an “abundance of caution.”

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) has also said that he would drink bottled water; He posted a video on Thursday showing what appeared to be chemicals in a creek, saying there were “dead worms and dead fish all throughout this water.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, traveled to East Palestine and posted a video of himself drinking water that he said came from its taps — saying that he was helping the mayor of East Palestine get the word out that the tap water is safe to drink. 

“What's clear is there is a lot of work to do. I thank the first responders and personnel on site for all their efforts thus far. I will work in a bipartisan effort to ensure our freight rail system is as safe as possible and prevent tragedies like this from occurring again,” Nehls said in a statement.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), too, has criticized the administration’s timeliness. 

“It is unacceptable that it took nearly two weeks for a senior Administration official to show up,” he said in a statement on EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s visit to the area. 

DeWine, for this part, called on Congress to take action if it is true that the railroad was not required to notify the state about the chemicals on the train because they were not considered high hazardous materials, Fox 19 reported.

Vance supported the call for labeling the materials as hazardous, though he said that the responsibility lies not only with Congress but also with the Transportation Department. 

“I don’t want to let Congress off the hook here because Congress can legislate a solution to this problem and that’s exactly what I'm going to try to do. We should have some legislation coming out here to that effect in the next few days, but look, the Department of Transportation can act on this issue too. This is a regulatory problem and a legal problem,” he told reporters this past week.