After Train Crash 'Nuked' Ohio Town With Toxic Chemicals, Buttigieg Focuses on Bigger Threat: White Construction Workers

Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, U.S., February 6, 2023 in this screengrab obtained from a handout video released by the NTSB. NTSBGov/Handout via REUTERS
February 13, 2023

In one of his first public appearances since a massive train derailment released poisonous chemicals in eastern Ohio, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg avoided discussing the disaster—instead criticizing construction workers for being too white.

"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, 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," Buttigieg said Monday at the National Association of Counties Conference.

The transportation secretary made no mention of the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, which has forced authorities to release toxic chemicals such as phosgene and vinyl chloride to avoid an explosion and get the tracks operable.

"We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open," Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist, told a local news outlet.

Buttigieg has been mum on the incident—the transportation secretary's Twitter and press releases have omitted any mention of the crash—even as reports have emerged that animals and fish are dying near the chemical releases. The possible effects on the human population are not yet known and the Environmental Protection Agency says anyone experiencing symptoms should see a doctor.

Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro (D.), whose state borders the affected towns, said it was safe to return home as air and water tests appeared acceptable.

Caggiano said he was surprised at how quickly authorities told people they could return home.

"There's a lot of what ifs, and we're going to be looking at this thing 5, 10, 15, 20 years down the line and wondering, 'Gee, cancer clusters could pop up, you know, well water could go bad," Caggiano said.

The Department of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment.