7 min read

The East Palestine time-delay

Why did it take three weeks for Pete Buttigieg to visit East Palestine?
The East Palestine time-delay
(Gage Skidmore)

Good morning! It’s Thursday, February 23, 2023. The 2024 elections are 621 days away.

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Ask Gabe: Why was the Biden administration so quiet on East Palestine?

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will visit East Palestine, Ohio today after weeks of bipartisan criticism over his response to the hazardous train derailment in the city.

During his visit, Buttigieg will meet with members of the community and receive a briefing from National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials. The NTSB is set to release the preliminary findings of its investigation into the derailment sometime today.

Many of you have been pinging me with questions about the situation in East Palestine, so I want to tackle one of those queries today and try to peel back some of the layers of what’s going on.

Debbie M. asks: “Why is no one in the federal government commenting on the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio? There are many conflicting reports about what happened, who is responsible, next steps, etc.”

First off, it should be noted that, behind the scenes, the federal government was fairly quick to respond to the situation.

About 50 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train, including 10 that were carrying hazardous materials, derailed in East Palestine at around 9 p.m. on February 3. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) personnel were on the scene by 2 a.m. on February 4, according to the agency.

But, at the same time, high-level Biden administration officials were very slow to comment publicly.

It wasn’t until February 13 that Transportation Secretary Buttigieg addressed the situation, with a thread on Twitter. EPA Administrator Michael Reagan tweeted about it for the first time on February 14. President Biden’s Twitter account was silent on the matter until February 21.

The mayor of East Palestine told a community gathering that it took almost two weeks for anyone from the White House to even contact him.

During this delay, Norfolk Southern burned the toxic chemicals on the derailed train as part of a “controlled release,” releasing fumes into the air and leading to concerns from fearful residents.

What took so long for the administration to respond? There is no one answer, of course, but I think the lack of national media coverage was a major part of the equation. The government and the media operate bidirectionally, each influencing the focus of the other. When something gets a lot of news coverage, the government generally feels pressure to respond.

In this case, it feels as though that entire ecosystem was on a time-delay, taking several days to catch on to what was happening. According to Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, the three main broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) spent a combined 15 minutes covering the derailment in the first 10 days after it happened. Cable networks aired about 2.5 hours of coverage in that time period.

During the two Sundays in that 10-day stretch, none of the major Sunday shows touched on the incident, even though some of them interviewed Buttigieg himself and could have questioned him about it. (I have also been guilty of giving the derailment little coverage.)

There are a few reasons I believe federal officials and national media were both slow to turn their focus to East Palestine:

  • It was crowded out by other events. Those first 10 days after the derailment also included the flight of the Chinese spy balloon, which received incessant media coverage; President Biden’s State of the Union address; and the mass shooting at Michigan State.
  • A local news desert. Usually, local coverage leads to national coverage, which leads to pressure on the government to act. But Youngstown, Ohio — the closest city to East Palestine — became the largest U.S. city without a daily newspaper in 2019. There are still local outlets doing great work in East Palestine, of course, but the diminished local news landscape makes it harder for an incident like this to bubble up through the traditional channels.
  • Coastal bias. Most of the national media (and the federal government) is headquartered in the East or West Coasts. Events that take place in those areas get more coverage.
  • Uncertainty about the full story. Even though, in retrospect, there was a major environmental and public health story going on under reporters’ and officials’ noses, it took a few days for the full story to come into view. At first, the EPA said the air in East Palestine was completely safe. Within days, residents began reporting rashes, sore throats, nausea and headaches, leading to further questions.
  • Train derailments usually don’t get much coverage. There are some events, mass shootings unfortunately being one example, that the news media is used to rushing into covering and government press agents are used to putting out responses to. But, even though an average of 1,700 trains are derailed in the U.S. each year, situations like this don’t normally rate national media or government attention. Covering rail stories is not a muscle reporters often flex, even if this one involved toxic chemicals. (There was also no casualties, which often translates to less coverage.)

On the government side, there also appears to have been some significant bureaucratic confusion. This was plainly a disaster, but not a natural one, creating uncertainty about which federal agencies should be involved in the response.

On February 17, Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH) said that he had requested assistance from the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) but he was told East Palestine did not qualify. “Although FEMA is synonymous with disaster support,” his office wrote, “they are most typically involved with disasters where there is tremendous home or property damage such as tornadoes, flooding, and hurricanes.”

Eventually, the government kicked into gear: hours after DeWine put out that statement, FEMA agreed to deploy a response team. The EPA’s Regan visited East Palestine on February 16. On February 21, almost three weeks after the crash, Regan ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for the cleanup costs, while Buttigieg outlined the safety changes he wanted rail companies and Congress to make.

And then, of course, there is the political angle. Buttigieg’s only experience before becoming Transportation Secretary was as mayor of a mid-sized city. His appointment to the job was widely seen as a reward for his support of Biden after ending his own 2020 primary campaign, and as a stop on the way to another presidential bid down the line.

But his stewardship of DOT has run into several crises, from railworker contract negotiations to widespread flight delays to an FAA computer outage. For Buttigieg, the longer East Palestine could remain under the radar, the better.

In that vacuum, top Democrats and Republicans alike were quick to criticize Buttigieg and Biden for their delays. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) called on the transportation secretary to resign. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) called it “unacceptable” that it took two weeks for a senior Biden administration official to visit.

The criticism brought together odd bedfellows. When Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) exhorted Buttigieg to act, Sen. Ted Cruz quote tweeted her message and added an unusual one of his own: “Fully agree.”

Former President Donald Trump, a 2024 presidential candidate, visited East Palestine on Wednesday, as Republicans skewered Biden for going to Ukraine while the situation unfolded. (The White House responded by pointing to Trump’s 2018 repeal of a regulation requiring faster braking for trains carrying hazardous material, although a Biden administration official acknowledged that regulation would not have applied to the train that derailed in East Palestine.)

Ahead of his trip today, I asked two rail safety experts if Buttigieg’s delay in visiting East Palestine was unusual. I received two opposite responses.

Buttigieg “should have been there in the first week to see and be seen,” former Federal Railroad Administration official Steven Dittmeyer told me, calling the Biden administration’s response “slower than what I would have liked to have seen.”

But David Clarke, the retired director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, felt differently. “It is not normal, to my recollection, for a cabinet level secretary or administrator to be present or even involved” in an “accident of this nature,” he said.

“VIPs just get in the way,” Clarke added.

No matter the precedent, as a matter of politics, it would have been hard for Buttigieg to avoid visiting much longer. The secretary himself has wavered on explaining his delay in speaking out: on Tuesday, he told CBS News that he “could have spoken sooner” and that it was a “lesson learned for me.”

But on Wednesday, he seemed to suggest his hands were tied. “During the initial response phase, I’ve followed the norm of staying out of the way of the independent NTSB,” Buttigieg tweeted. “Now that we’re into the policy phase, I’ll be visiting.”

Clarke, who otherwise praised the Biden response, told me he wasn’t familiar with any such norm.

“The DOT doesn’t have to do something when NTSB makes recommendations (and often doesn’t), nor does DOT have to wait for NTSB to take some sort of action,” he said.

More news to know.

  • Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have been subpoenaed by the special counsel investigating former President Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, the New York Times reports.
  • Per CBS News, Trump allies are preparing to move to quash any indictments from an Atlanta prosecutor after a media tour by the forewoman of a special grand jury set up to recommend charges in the case.
  • The race for the Senate in 2024 will come down to three incumbent Democrats, Politico explains. Two of them, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Montana’s Jon Tester, have now signaled plans to run for re-election. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has yet to announce his intentions.
  • The 72 hours President Biden spent in Ukraine and Poland were “among the most momentous of his presidency,” CNN says. But two looming questions remain unanswered: “How and when the war will end.”

The day ahead.

All times Eastern.

President Biden is back in Washington, D.C., after returning from Poland. He has nothing on his public schedule besides his daily intelligence briefing.

The House and Senate are on recess.

The Supreme Court has no oral arguments.

Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe