U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg toured the wreckage Thursday of this month's Ohio train derailment and toxic spill, and he urged freight rail companies not to stand in the way of tougher safety regulations.
In a preliminary report, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the train engineer applied brakes as soon as an alarm rang on February 3 to warn of an overheated axle on the Norfolk Southern train.
It said "defect detectors" showed the axle starting to heat up about 48 kilometers from the derailment site, but not to levels that would have triggered the audible alarm to warn the train engineer that far away.
The NTSB said its investigation was focusing on the possibility that an overheated wheelset and bearing on a car triggered the derailment, prompting the evacuation of thousands of people and igniting health concerns.
Wearing a hard hat and orange safety vest to the derailment site in East Palestine, Buttigieg met with NTSB staff and called on both Congress and the rail industry to work to increase rail safety.
"Norfolk Southern and the other freight rail companies need to stop fighting us every time we try to do a regulation," Buttigieg told reporters.
There was no immediate response from Norfolk Southern, whose chief executive apologized Wednesday at a CNN town hall event that highlighted residents' concerns about soil and ground water contamination.
The rail industry says 99.9% of all hazardous material shipments reach their destination without incident and the hazmat accident rate has declined by 55% since 2012.
Some rail safety requirements were withdrawn under Republican former President Donald Trump. Some Republican critics of the East Palestine response who previously opposed rail regulations have now expressed openness to new rules.
The Biden administration had been criticized for not having made a high-level visit sooner, and Buttigieg said he did not want to make an earlier visit that might have impeded the emergency response.
President Joe Biden and Buttigieg are both Democrats.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan visited East Palestine earlier this week.
The NTSB was due to hold an afternoon news conference to further detail its initial findings.
The NTSB also said it was investigating whether pressure relief valves on train cars carrying the toxic chemical vinyl chloride functioned properly following the wreck and subsequent fire.
Experts had said that if those relief valves had functioned properly, authorities may not have needed to drain upward of 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride from cars and purposefully set it ablaze, heavily contaminating the environment.
The NTSB said investigators were looking at how the defect detection system worked and whether the system might have alerted the train engineer to the train's problems earlier.
Biden and his administration have said the company must pay for the damage and clean-up efforts, and the EPA ordered company officials to attend town hall events after executives failed to attend an earlier meeting.
Buttigieg had said he would push major railroads to improve safety and seek bipartisan support in Congress to raise the cap on fines against railroads for violating safety regulations.
Trump, who is campaigning for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, visited the area on Wednesday and criticized the Biden administration.
East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, appearing on Thursday with Trump ally Rudy Giuliani, told reporters that anybody was welcome in his town "as long as they're going to help our community ... no matter whether they're a Democrat or Republican."