CEO promises aid at derailment hearing
WASHINGTON — Norfolk Southern’s CEO apologized before Congress on Thursday and pledged millions of dollars to help East Palestine, Ohio, recover from last month’s fiery, hazardous materials train derailment. But he stopped short of fully endorsing a Senate bill to toughen safety regulations.
CEO Alan Shaw said his railroad supports the goal of improving rail safety, but he also defended the railroad’s record.
He did back proposals to tighten standards for tank cars that the railroads don’t own, expand hazardous materials training for first responders and establish standards for the trackside detectors railroads use to spot problems.
“I’m terribly sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the folks of that community,” Shaw said. “We’re going to be there for as long as it takes to help East Palestine thrive and recover.”
He pointed to a $20 million commitment so far to help the community recover. Norfolk Southern’s final financial responsibility is expected to run far beyond that after legal proceedings.
The company has announced several voluntary safety upgrades. Senators, however, have promised a pressing inquiry into the derailment, the Biden administration’s response and the company’s safety practices after the toppling of 38 railcars, including 11 carrying hazardous materials. Federal regulators have also said Norfolk Southern itself must do more to improve safety.
No one was injured in the crash, but state and local officials decided to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five tanker cars, prompting the evacuation of half of the roughly 5,000 residents of East Palestine. Scenes of billowing smoke above the village, alongside an outcry from residents that they are still suffering from illnesses, have turned high-level attention to railroad safety and how dangerous materials are transported.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the chair of the committee opened the hearing by calling it an “an opportunity to put ourselves in the shoes of those impacted by this disaster, examine the immediate response and ensure long-term accountability for the cleanup efforts.”
Carper joined the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Shelley Capito of West Virginia, in a call with reporters on Wednesday to emphasize they would work in bipartisan fashion “to deliver accountability to the communities and folks who have been impacted.”
The East Palestine disaster as well as a spate of other recent train derailments have sparked a show of bipartisanship in the Senate. The committee on Thursday also heard from Ohio and Pennsylvania senators — Republican JD Vance and Democrats Sherrod Brown and Bob Casey — who are pushing new safety regulations called the Railway Safety Act of 2023.
“It shouldn’t take a train derailment for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve — not corporations like Norfolk Southern,” Brown of Ohio said in prepared remarks. “Lobbyists for the rail companies spent years fighting every effort to strengthen rules to make our trains and rail lines safer. Now Ohioans are paying the price.”
Train derailments have been getting less common but there were still more than 1,000 last year, according to data collected by the Federal Railroad Administration. But even a single train derailment involving hazardous materials can be disastrous.
Noting that a train had derailed in her home state of West Virginia on Wednesday, Capito cast the hearing as the Senate’s first step among several on railway safety and emergency response.
Hazardous materials shipments account for 7 percent to 8 percent of the roughly 30 million shipments railroads deliver across the U.S. each year. But railroads often mix shipments and might have one or two cars of hazardous materials on almost any train.
The Association of American Railroads trade group says 99.9 percent of hazardous materials shipments reach their destinations safely, and railroads are generally regarded as the safest option to transport dangerous chemicals across land.
But lawmakers want to make railroads safer. The Railway Safety Act of 2023, which has gained support from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., would require more detectors to be installed to check the temperature of wheel bearings more frequently, make sure railroads notify states about the hazardous materials they are transporting, and fund hazmat training for first responders.
Meanwhile, House Republicans have voiced skepticism about passing new regulations on railroads. GOP senators discussed the bill in their weekly luncheon on Tuesday, but Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said most would prefer the bill be ironed out in a committee.
Vance, an Ohio senator who first won election last November, slammed fellow Republicans who have dismissed his bill, saying they are ignoring a shift in the GOP to appeal to blue-collar voters.
“We have a choice: Are we for big business and big government, or are we for the people of East Palestine?” he said.