EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WJW) — One day shy of three weeks after the fiery, toxic derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg visited the site for the first time on Thursday, Feb. 23.

Buttigieg, who has been criticized for taking so long to visit the site, said he was trying to balance his responsibilities as the secretary of transportation, his desire to be on the ground here, and his decision to allow the National Transportation Safety Board to do its work first before the Department of Transportation became involved.

He did, however, say the federal government has been involved in the investigation and cleanup of the site and of the community since it first happened.

“[The residents of East Palestine] are going to have support from us when it comes to holding Norfolk Southern accountable. They are going to have support from the EPA when it comes to making sure they have accurate information about the safety of their air, water and soil and, I think, they ought to have support from the whole country when we see what they have been through,” said Buttigieg.

Buttigieg’s visit also comes one day after former President Donald Trump came to East Palestine, bringing water and buying fast food meals for firefighters and police officers.

The secretary of transportation on Thursday was critical of the Trump administration’s “Christmas tree of regulatory changes made on their way out of the door in 2020.”

“If the same people want to come here and play political games are the same people who sided with industry again and again and again and watered down rail regulations again and again and again, I want to see whether they have an actual change of heart or not,” said Buttigieg.

He called for regulatory changes involving notification by rail companies of when hazardous trains are passing through communities and requiring stronger, double-walled tanker cars for the transportation of hazardous chemicals.

“I think, in a common sense level, you just have to ask yourself if there is a category called high hazard flammable trains, and this train that led to that toxic cloud and that consequence to this community wasn’t in it — what’s going on here?” said Buttigieg.

He also said he supports regulatory measures that would define how many people should be on a train.

“This (train) had three people on it, a trainee and two others. … The railroad companies want to be able to take it down to one,” Buttigieg said.

“Norfolk Southern and the other freight rail companies need to stop fighting us every time we try to do a regulation in order to hold them accountable and other railroad companies accountable for their safety record and what we have seen is industry goes to Washington and they get their way,” he said.

Buttigieg also said he feels fines for catastrophic incidents are not high enough.

Also in East Palestine on Thursday was former New York mayor and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who met with the village’s mayor and others.

While obviously critical of the Trump administration’s deregulation of freight carriers, Buttigieg admitted that he is aware the people of East Palestine do not want their environmental crisis to become a political sideshow.

And while regulatory efforts can take a very long time to happen, FOX 8 pointed out to the transportation secretary that these trains are still passing through communities and states throughout the United States, asking what the Transportation Department or the federal government can do immediately to improve rail safety.

“One thing I have ordered the [Federal Railroad Administration] to do is to step up inspection programs — what we call focused inspection — on any of the routes that are of particular concern either because of the nature of the cargo that’s travelling there or because of some other community risk,” said Buttigieg.

“What we can do immediately is a level of elevated focused inspection, based on what we have learned from this situation. Because you are exactly right, these regulatory processes can take forever — something that railroad companies have taken advantage of, by the way, sometimes waiting out one administration to see if a more industry-friendly administration will come in and kill that,” he said.

“The best way to deal with an ecological disaster is to stop it from happening in the first place,” Buttigieg concluded.