Pete Buttigieg Details Reason Joe Biden May Not Visit East Palestine

Pete Buttigieg said that the reason President Joe Biden has yet to visit East Palestine, Ohio and the site of a recent toxic train derailment nearby is because of the "disruptive effects" it could have on the community and the clean-up process.

The Department of Transportation secretary said he was "certainly glad" he visited the site last week after the Biden administration drew criticism over its response to the chemical spill. His visit came the day after former President Donald Trump flew there to deliver supplies and bottled water to residents.

On February 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed with 38 cars coming off the tracks, 11 of which were carrying toxic chemicals. The derailment sparked a large fire, which prompted emergency responders to breach five cars carrying vinyl chloride and initiate a controlled burn, sending toxic gases into the atmosphere.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials have detected toxic substances in the nearby water and soil, some of which remains contaminated, but have stressed air contamination remained at safe levels. Efforts to dispose of the toxic waste safely resumed on Monday.

Pete Buttigieg East Palestine Joe Biden
L: U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg delivers remarks to the press as he visited the site of the Norfolk Southern train derailment on February 23, 2023, in East Palestine. R: U.S. President Joe Biden returns to the White House on February 28, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Buttigieg said Biden hasn't visited East Palestine yet due to the disruption it could cause to residents. Michael Swensen/Getty Images

Since being allowed to return home after being evacuated, residents have complained of symptoms associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, and experts fear spilled chemicals could leach into nearby private wells used for drinking water. Residents with private wells were told to drink bottled water while testing was ongoing.

Appearing on CNN on Tuesday, Buttigieg was asked by anchor Don Lemon about a potential visit to East Palestine by the president.

"What I know is that he's been very concerned throughout this process about what the people of East Palestine are going through," the transportation chief said. "I think also a visit of that level can sometimes have a lot of disruptive effects, so would need to be thought of carefully."

However, Buttigieg noted that he had visited the town, as had Michael Regan, the EPA's administrator, adding that the appearances were "probably the most cabinet-level on-the-ground presence for a rail disaster in recent memory—with good reason."

Presidential visits require complex security arrangements that usually involve a large number of staff and vehicles. A visit by Biden could be viewed as potentially overwhelming to a small, rural town.

Biden drew the ire of Republicans and local lawmakers over his decision to visit Kyiv ahead of the one-year anniversary of the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, instead of visiting the domestic crash site. Trent Conaway, the mayor of East Palestine, described the trip to Kyiv as a "slap in the face."

Buttigieg himself has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle for a perceived lack of response to the toxic spill, waiting until February 14 to comment publicly on the incident.

He suggested that he wanted to let the experts on the ground do their job before mounting a political response. His visit was timed after the National Transportation Safety Board had completed a preliminary assessment of the crash.

At a town hall the following day, Conaway said that February 14—eleven days after the crash—was the first day he had heard from the White House, amid questions of "where's Pete Buttigieg?"

Newsweek reached out to the White House for comment.