US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg visits "Special Report with Bret Baier" on January 05, 2023 in Washington, DC.
CNN  — 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters on Monday that he plans to visit East Palestine, Ohio, “when the time is right” and announced new efforts by his agency to improve rail safety in the wake of a train derailment that has left local residents questioning the safety of their soil, air and water.

“I am very interested in getting to know the residents of East Palestine, hearing from them about how they’ve been impacted and communicating with them about the steps that we’re taking,” Buttigieg said on a Monday call, adding that he had referred to past common practices of transportation secretaries by deferring first to the National Safety Transportation Board after a major disaster like the derailment. “But yes, when the time is right, I do plan to visit East Palestine. I don’t have a date for you right now.”

Buttigieg said he “could have spoken out sooner” and that it was a “lesson learned,” in an interview Tuesday on CBS News’ “Red and Blue.”

“I was focused on just making sure that our folks on the ground were all set but could have spoken sooner about how strongly I felt about this incident and that’s a lesson learned for me,” Buttigieg said.

Residents of the small community have criticized the response to the February 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train that released toxic chemicals. US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan returned to East Palestine to meet with residents and local and state officials on Tuesday.

Buttigieg previewed the new rail safety efforts in a recent letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, demanding accountability and calling for greater safety regulations. And while much of the Department of Transportation’s newly announced efforts focus on calls to Congress and the private sector to work to bolster rail safety, he said his agency will enhance its work as well.

“We are accelerating and augmenting our ongoing lines of effort on rail regulation and inspection here at the US DOT, including further regulation on high hazard flammable trains and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes – rules that were clawed back under the previous administration – to the full extent of that we are allowed to under current law, and we will continue using resources from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to fund projects that improve rail safety,” Buttigieg said.

A DOT news release states that the agency will continue to press to advance the “Train Crew Staffing Rule,” which would require a minimum of two crew members during most railroad operations. Norfolk Southern has opposed the proposed rule.

Buttigieg also said that it’s a good time to evaluate whether the federal government can “expand the kinds of trains that count as high-hazard flammable train, so that there’s a higher degree of safety.”

“Let me also mention, though, one of the things you’ll see in the plan that I’m urging the railroads to do is not to wait on us to mandate this,” he added.

DOT is calling on Norfolk Southern and the rest of the freight rail and rail shipping industry to take a number of immediate actions, including committing to phasing in safer tank cars by 2025, the secretary said. The department is also calling on Congress to take up legislation that would increase the maximum fines DOT can issue to rail companies for violating safety regulations.

On the call, the secretary repeatedly emphasized a new willingness from both sides of the aisle to address rail safety, saying, “We’re going to accelerate these actions and work, I hope, with the newfound bipartisan interest and support we’ve been seeing in Congress to secure stronger legislation and overcome resistance by the (railroad) industry to water down this lifesaving work.”

Buttigieg said he would “stay on the right side of the Hatch Act” when he was asked about former President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit to East Palestine, referencing a federal law that seeks to keep government functions nonpartisan. But he appeared to take issue with what he sees as political opportunists whose past policies may have encouraged the deregulation of the rail industry.

“Whether we’re talking about elected officials or anybody else showing up, there is a chance for everybody who has a public voice on this issue to demonstrate whether they are interested in helping the people of East Palestine or using the people of East Palestine,” he said in response to the question about Trump, who has launched a 2024 White House bid.

“This is a community that, through no fault of its own, is going through enormous upheaval. And a lot of the folks who seem to find political opportunity there are among those who have sided with the rail industry again and again and again, as they have fought safety regulations on railroads and hazmat, tooth and nail. And so, if people are going to find religion about rail regulation, sometimes for the first time, I welcome that.”

The secretary also discussed Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s recent statement questioning DOT on freight train system safety.

“We heard from Sen. Rubio last week, who had some pretty strong words about this incident,” Buttigieg said. “So, I guess what I would say is there is an opportunity right now, leaving aside the politics, for anyone on either side of the aisle to join us in raising the standard of accountability and safety. And if folks are serious about this – Republican, Democrat or independent – I will work with them to raise the bar. The rest is just politics.”

CNN’s Brenda Goodman, Caroll Alvarado and Jack Forrest contributed to this report.