Sooty plumes of toxic smoke towered stories above the quiet, evacuated village of East Palestine, Ohio, last week as officials tried to contain what might be the worst rail disaster of the decade. As usual, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has stayed as far from the crisis as possible.
Approximately 50 rail cars derailed Feb. 3 near the town on the Pennsylvania border, creating a scene of utter devastation. On Feb. 6, five derailed tanker cars began to leak vinyl chloride, a highly toxic, carcinogenic, and flammable chemical used to manufacture plastics such as PVC piping.
Worried that the cars might scatter toxins and shrapnel over a large area if they exploded, officials determined to ignite the chemical in a controlled burn. Flames leapt into the sky, dwarfing the tiny village with plumes of smoke rising ever higher.
Burning vinyl chloride produces phosgene and hydrogen chloride. Phosgene caused 85,000 deaths during World War I, where it was used as a chemical weapon. Hydrogen chloride forms hydrochloric acid, a highly corrosive acid, upon contact with atmospheric water vapor.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, ordered residents to evacuate an area of 2 square miles around the crash site. Evacuations began Feb. 3, and residents were not able to return until Feb. 8. Residents returned to find sickened and dead animals, such as chickens and fish.
The health crisis has extended to humans too.
“A large number of firefighters, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and state troopers have experienced many symptoms including a bad cough, headaches, sore throat, and diarrhea,” a first responder said. “The same symptoms were reported by residents who did not evacuate.”
The accident’s location, less than 15 miles from the Ohio River, prompted concerns that dangerous chemicals could seep into the water supply and spread pollutants downstream.
Meanwhile, transportation chief Buttigieg has kept his distance from the crisis. He uttered not a word about it Monday while speaking at the National Association of Counties’ Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C.
“It couldn’t be a more exciting time for transportation,” Buttigieg said. “It’s had its challenges. I mean, if you’re looking [at] what the American transportation system has faced in the last two or three years. … We have faced issues from container shipping to airline cancellations. Now we have balloons.”
That last line generated chuckles, not least from Buttigieg himself.
Buttigieg also pushed electric vehicle subsidies, boasted a plan to eliminate traffic deaths entirely, and even suggested that there are too many white construction workers.
“We have heard way too many stories from generations past of infrastructure where you got a neighborhood, often a neighborhood of color, that finally sees the project come to them,” he said, “but everyone in the hard hats on that project, doing the good-paying jobs, don’t look like they came from anywhere near the neighborhood.”
Among all the challenges and opportunities he mentioned, Buttigieg failed to mention the ongoing clean-up operation in East Palestine, critics noted.
“The recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, is nothing short of a tragedy,” tweeted Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz. “This is another transportation failure under Mayor Pete’s leadership. Where is he?”
Even fellow Democrats piled on.
“He jokes about balloons while ignoring East Palestine, OH. We deserve better than this,” tweeted Nina Turner, a former Democratic state senator in Ohio.
When asked about Buttigieg’s response to the train derailment, a spokesperson for the Transportation Department’s Federal Highway Administration shared with The Washington Stand a tweet thread from Buttigieg’s official account beginning at 8:24 p.m. Monday—after critics had nailed the trasnportation secretary’s lack of response.
“I continue to be concerned about the impacts of the Feb 3 train derailment near East Palestine, OH,” Buttigieg wrote Monday in his first public statement about the tragedy.
The Transportation Department is promoting the same priorities as Buttigieg. So far this year, it announced the “first-ever blueprint to decarbonize America’s transportation sector,” a 19-member anti-discrimination subcommittee, and a campaign to eliminate traffic deaths, but nothing about train derailments or the other recent, transportation-related crises.
Train derailment is not just a problem in East Palestine, Ohio.
On Jan. 28, 16 train cars derailed near Keatchie, Louisiana. Two of the cars were spilling propinoic acid and acetic anhydride, prompting authorities to order the evacuation of 130 people. On Feb. 13, 21 train cars derailed in a fatal collision with an 18-wheeler near Splendora, Texas, prompting hazmat crews to monitor the site for environmental pollutants. On Jan.10, two locomotives and 25 cars derailed near Denmark, South Carolina, delaying an Amtrak express carrying hundreds of passengers for 20 hours.
Newsweek has confirmed a dozen train derailments already this year, and it cited Bureau of Transportation Statistics data showing that “54,539 train derailments occurred in the U.S. from 1990 to 2021, an average of 1,704 per year.”
In just over two years in his Cabinet post, Buttigieg has stumbled from one transportation-related crisis to another, often proving absent or inactive in the pinch.
Early in 2021, an easily foreseeable supply-chain bottleneck at Pacific ports unraveled into a full-fledged crisis, exacerbated by the demands of dockworker unions and a shortage of truckers. In mid-August, Buttigieg left his department to run itself while he took two full months of parental leave after he and his husband adopted twins.
“For the first four weeks, he was mostly offline except for major agency decisions and matters that could not be delegated,” a DOT spokesperson later said.
Buttigieg attended no meetings of the Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force for at least six weeks.
In the fall of 2022, at the last minute, federal negotiators averted a nationwide strike by freight-rail operators—which would have created a whole new supply chain crisis within the U.S. if Labor Secretary Marty Walsh had not shepherded a marathon, 20-hour negotiation in Washington to a successful conclusion.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg, whose department also was concerned, was touring the Detroit Auto Show. Two weeks earlier, instead of hustling to stave off the crisis, Buttigieg left the country for a week on “a long-planned personal trip” to Porto, Portugal.
Throughout 2021-2022, travelers struggled with chaotic air travel arrangements, including a persistently high volume of canceled flights. Last September, Buttigieg assured America: “I think it’s going to get better by the holidays.”
Obviously, it didn’t. Between powerful blizzards and a complete meltdown at Southwest Airlines, more than 15,000 flights were canceled, leaving travelers stranded.
Four months earlier, 38 out of 50 state attorneys general had complained to Congress that DOT “failed to respond and to provide appropriate recourse” to consumer complaints and was “unable or unwilling to hold the airline industry accountable” for repeated cancellations.
Buttigieg promised to fix the problem, and then it got worse.
While ordinary Americans suffer from commercial flight cancellations, Buttigieg has traveled nearly 20 times on a taxpayer-funded private jet, including another private vacation to Europe and an hourslong round trip between Washington and New York City—an easy rail journey.
Let’s not forget the Jan. 11 blunder at the Federal Aviation Administration, which caused 1,300 flights to be canceled and another 9,500 to be delayed.
“The problem was traced to the FAA’s creaky, outdated NOTAM system,” explained National Review’s Jim Geraghty. “The good news is that, just the previous month, Buttigieg and the department had demanded changes in the NOTAM system. The bad news is that the change was in the name, from ‘Notice to Airmen’ to ‘Notice to Air Missions,’ because the new name was ‘inclusive of all aviators and missions.’”
That incident captures the essence of the problem: The Biden administration, particularly regarding Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, is too preoccupied with advancing its woke diversity agenda to plan for, prevent, or otherwise protect Americans from looming crises.
It didn’t have to happen this way. President Joe Biden could have selected a transportation secretary with more experience and less ambition. After all, the Department of Transportation is like a back muscle or a Wi-Fi network; it gets noticed only when it malfunctions.
But Biden needed another diversity hire for his Cabinet, and Buttigieg checked the “LGBT” box. He also may have earned himself a high-ranking position as a political quid pro quo for bowing out of the Democrats’ presidential primary race.
Then the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg had no particular experience solving transportation problems. In fact, the track record he did have was poor to failing. During his watch, the city’s pothole problem grew so notorious that Domino’s Pizza offered to pay the city to fix the potholes so its delivery drivers would have smoother routes.
Yet he’s the man Biden picked to run the nation’s transportation system. The results speak for themselves.
It would be unfair to hold Buttigieg entirely responsible for every transportation crisis that has arisen on his watch. But he can and should be held responsible for the manner in which he has dealt with them—or not.
If you’re looking for a Cabinet secretary who will ensure our software systems have gender-inclusive language, and our infrastructure projects have racially diverse construction crews, then he’s your man. If you prefer a Cabinet secretary to stay on top of a crisis, work toward creative solutions, or better yet, prevent them from occurring in the first place, he’s probably not.
The science of governing is about making tough trade-offs under non-ideal conditions. In vital personnel selections, for instance, an executive may find himself constrained to choose between the values of diversity and competence.
When it comes to the Transportation Department, the Biden administration has coupled itself to diversity, but it can’t keep the train on the tracks.
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