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Buttigieg to travel to East Palestine on Thursday amid criticism Biden administration isn’t doing enough

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks ahead of President Joe Biden's arrival during a news conference at the construction site of the Hudson Tunnel Project, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, in New York. Biden is traveling to New York City to showcase a $292 million mega grant that will be used to help build a rail tunnel beneath the Hudson River.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is set to travel to East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday in the wake of the hazardous train derailment earlier this month.

The secretary will meet with community members affected by the derailment, receive an update on the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) investigation and hear from investigators on the ground, according to the Transportation Department.

The NTSB is expected to issue its initial findings from the investigation into the derailment on Thursday.

The secretary’s trip comes after the Biden administration faced criticism for not heading to East Palestine sooner.

The Transportation Department defended the timing of the trip, saying in a statement on Wednesday that Buttigieg wanted to “go when it is appropriate and wouldn’t detract from the emergency response efforts.”

A spokesperson for the department added that Buttigieg is going now since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “is moving out of the emergency response phase and transitioning to the long-term remediation phase” and noted that the visit aligns with the NTSB issuing its findings of the investigation. 

East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said on Monday that President Biden’s trip to Ukraine was the “biggest slap in the face,” that it showed the president “doesn’t care about us” and that he was “furious” Biden was supporting Ukraine and not his town.

Former President Trump, who has suggested that the town was abandoned by the Biden administration, is slated to visit East Palestine on Wednesday. Biden was in Poland until Wednesday afternoon and is heading back to Washington.

A Transportation Department spokesperson said on Wednesday that the EPA is leading the federal response to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, but that the Transportation Department will help “get to the bottom of what caused the derailment and implementing rail safety measures.”

Buttigieg said on Tuesday in an interview with ABC that he plans to visit East Palestine, saying “when I go, the focus is going to be on action.” 

Others on the trip with Buttigieg will include Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Amit Bose and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration Deputy Administrator Tristan Brown.

Buttigieg on Tuesday unveiled a series of proposal rail reforms. He also called on Norfolk Southern and other rail companies to improve safeguards and called on Congress to increase the fines that the Transportation Department can issue against rail companies for safety violations, which currently stand at $225,455 for the maximum fine.