WASHINGTON — Members of a Senate committee today grilled Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw and environmental officials over the response to the Feb. 3 toxic derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Shaw repeated his promise that the railroad will do whatever it takes to make things right in East Palestine, now and over the long term.
The railroad has spent $20 million to date in the form of reimbursements and investments in the community, which Shaw said was just a down payment on the railroad’s commitment to cleaning up the derailment site as thoroughly and quickly as possible. (Shaw’s prepared remarks are available here.)
Senators said they would hold NS accountable for paying for cleanup costs, medical bills, and for the financial toll the derailment has taken on the residents and businesses of East Palestine.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and other Democrats on the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works were critical of job cuts and multi-billion dollar share buyback programs at NS and other railroads over the past few years, which they claim have jeopardized rail safety.
Brown said NS could have hired more inspectors, added car mechanics, and installed more wayside detectors. “Norfolk Southern’s profits went up and up and up and look what happened,” he said.
Investigators have said the derailment was caused by the catastrophic failure of a wheel bearing on the train’s 23rd car, a covered hopper carrying plastic pellets. The hot axle triggered a hotbox detector alarm on the outskirts of East Palestine moments before the derailment.
Shaw noted that NS this week said it would install 200 more hotbox detectors across its system as part of a six-point safety plan. The first new detector, he said, was installed on Wednesday near East Palestine to close a 19.2-mile gap that had existed between detectors on the westbound approach to the town.
Shaw said NS was committed to doing what’s right, but declined to specifically promise to back all proposed safety regulations, compensate residents for the decline in home values, or to stop the railroad’s share buyback programs.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked Shaw to make a commitment that he will lead the industry in ending the “disastrous” Precision Scheduled Railroading operating model imposed by Wall Street.
Shaw said NS employs 1,500 more people now than it did a year ago and noted that at the railroad’s investor day in December he charted a new course for the industry by moving away from a near-term focus on profits and instead is now taking a longer-term view. “We were the first to pivot out of it,” he says.
Sanders also asked NS to provide all of its workers with paid sick days. NS has reached sick leave agreements with three unions, Shaw noted, and continues to negotiate with other unions.
Committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., and West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the panel’s ranking Republican, were critical of the lack of transparency from NS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the first hours and days after the derailment.
There was confusion, they noted, about the controlled venting and burning of vinyl chloride from five derailed tank cars. First responders didn’t immediately have knowledge about what hazardous commodities were on the train. And the EPA was slow to provide residents with data about the safety of water and air.
Capito said the lack of transparency allowed armchair experts to spread misinformation via social media, which has spawned a lingering distrust of cleanup efforts and whether residents are safe in their own town.
Shaw noted that, in response to resident concerns about a lack of information, the railroad set up a website, nsmakingitright.com, that provides frequent updates about air and water testing as well as ongoing cleanup efforts and how residents can get help.
Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, said the EPA was delaying efforts to move contaminated soil from East Palestine for disposal elsewhere.
He also criticized some of his fellow Republicans for not supporting the bipartisan Rail Safety Act of 2023, which was filed earlier this month in response to the East Palestine wreck. Vance said it was neither unreasonable nor a violation of free market principles to impose additional safety regulations on railroads.
Shaw said he supported the legislative intent to improve rail safety, noting that NS has been calling for improved tank car safety rules and increased funding for first responder training.
But senators were critical of lobbying efforts by NS and other Class I railroads against electronically controlled pneumatic brakes and other safety measures.
Shaw noted that National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy has said that ECP brakes would not have prevented the East Palestine derailment or made it any less severe. He also pointed out that various government studies did not support a rule mandating ECP brakes.
Questions from a couple of senators showed their ignorance about the railroad industry in general and Norfolk Southern’s relief efforts in East Palestine in particular.
“If you have brakes on every car, rather than brakes just on the front car, you create the accordion style crashes you’ve been having,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. Yet NS and other railroads have lobbied against ECP brakes, he said.
“If we can put people on the moon we can put brakes on every train car,” Merkley said.
Shaw responded: “There are brakes on every car. I can assure you of that.”
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., asked Shaw why NS was only providing financial assistance to people whose homes and businesses are within a 1-mile radius of the derailment site. A 1-mile evacuation zone was created in the immediate aftermath of the wreck.
Shaw said the railroad has made aid available to everyone in the East Palestine ZIP code as well as in neighboring Darlington Township in Pennsylvania.