Los Angeles Times

Railroad CEO apologizes for the Ohio derailment

At Senate hearing, Norfolk Southern chief avoids specifics on helping residents.

- By Stephen Groves and Josh Funk Groves and Funk write for the Associated Press.

WASHINGTON — Norfolk Southern’s chief executive apologized before Congress on Thursday for last month’s fiery hazardousm­aterials train derailment on the Ohio-Pennsylvan­ia border and pledged millions of dollars to help the local town recover. But he stopped short of fully endorsing tougher safety regulation­s or specific commitment­s to pay for long-term health and economic harm.

In a packed Senate hearing, Alan Shaw said his railroad firmly supports the goal of improving rail safety, but he also defended his company’s record.

He was questioned closely by both Democrats and Republican­s about specific commitment­s to pay for long-term health and economic harm; the decision-making that led to the release and burn of toxic vinyl chloride from five tanker cars; and the company’s commitment to safety and helping the people of East Palestine, Ohio.

“I’m terribly sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the folks of that community,” Shaw told the Senate Committee on Environmen­t and Public Works. “We’re going to be there for as long as it takes to help East Palestine thrive and recover.”

But the condolence­s and commitment of $20 million in aid so far hardly satisfied lawmakers or several East Palestine residents who traveled to Washington for the hearing.

“How do we trust that man with our health and the health of our children, when he won’t even answer the questions that we need answered?” said Jami Cozza, adding that her family continues to suffer from illnesses.

The company has announced several voluntary safety upgrades. Senators, however, are looking to act themselves as they investigat­e the derailment, the Biden administra­tion’s response and the company’s safety practices after the toppling of 38 rail cars, including 11 carrying hazardous materials.

Norfolk Southern is also under pressure from federal regulators. The National Transporta­tion Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administra­tion announced investigat­ions this week of the East Palestine derailment and other accidents, including the death of a train conductor Tuesday.

Just Thursday, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Alabama. Company and local officials said there was no threat to the public.

In the East Palestine crash, no one was injured, but half of the roughly 5,000 local residents were evacuated. Scenes of billowing smoke above the town, alongside complaints from residents that they are still suffering from illnesses, have turned national attention to railroad safety and the ways dangerous materials are transporte­d.

It’s all sparked a show of bipartisan­ship in the Senate. The committee on Thursday also heard from Ohio and Pennsylvan­ia senators — J.D. Vance (ROhio), Sherrod Brown (DOhio) and Bob Casey (DPa.) — who are proposing new safety regulation­s under a Railway Safety Act of 2023.

Train derailment­s have been getting less common, but there were still more than 1,000 last year, according to Federal Railroad Administra­tion data. And as East Palestine shows, even a single train derailment involving hazardous materials can be disastrous.

Hazardous materials shipments account for 7% to 8% 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 Assn. of American Railroads says 99.9% of hazardous-materials shipments reach their destinatio­ns safely.

The Senate Commerce Committee will also hear from Shaw, as well as NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy, in a hearing this month.

Shaw is backing 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. The company has also said it is adding “approximat­ely 200 hot bearing detectors” to its network. The NTSB has said a detector warned the crew operating the train that derailed Feb. 3 outside East Palestine, but workers couldn’t stop the train before more than three dozen cars came off the tracks and caught fire.

Some lawmakers want to push beyond voluntary safety upgrades. The Railway Safety Act of 2023, which has gained support from Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), would require more hot-bearing detectors to be installed, set limits on train length and make sure railroads notify states about the hazardous materials they are transporti­ng.

Some Republican­s have hesitated to support the proposal, resisting efforts to impose new regulation­s.

Vance, who was elected in November, slammed those in his party 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.

Republican­s are more eager to delve into the emergency response to the East Palestine derailment.

Thursday’s hearing also featured environmen­tal protection officials from the federal, state and local levels. They acknowledg­ed communicat­ion problems in the days immediatel­y after the derailment, including around the decision to release and burn the vinyl chloride.

Republican­s have criticized President Biden for not visiting the community since the derailment. The Democratic president has said he will visit at some point.

The Senate bill also touches on a disagreeme­nt between railroad worker unions and operators by requiring train crews to continue to have two people. Unions argue that railroads are riskier because of job cuts in the industry over the last six years. Nearly onethird of all rail jobs were eliminated and train crews, they say, deal with fatigue because they are on call night and day.

Shaw said Norfolk Southern has gone on a “hiring spree” in the last year, but he didn’t back a requiremen­t to maintain two-person crews on freight railroads.

He pointed to more than $1 billion the company spent on safety last year, but he acknowledg­ed that Norfolk Southern also spent more than $3 billion buying back its stock and recorded a $3.3billion profit in 2022.

“I am committed to making Norfolk Southern’s safety culture the best in the industry,” he told the Senate panel.

Democratic Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachuse­tts rejected Shaw’s talk of safety after a recent string of incidents, including a derailment Saturday near Springfiel­d, Ohio, and the death of a conductor this week at a steel plant in Cleveland.

“It seems like every week there’s another accident that Norfolk Southern is a part of in our country. So you might think that you’ve put in enough, but the facts are saying just the opposite,” Markey said.

The senator also pressed Shaw to make specific commitment­s including paying for the loss of home values in East Palestine. Shaw repeated this refrain: “I am committed to do what’s right.”

 ?? Kevin Wolf Associated Press ?? “WE’RE GOING to be there for as long as it takes to help East Palestine thrive and recover,” Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testified at a Senate hearing.
Kevin Wolf Associated Press “WE’RE GOING to be there for as long as it takes to help East Palestine thrive and recover,” Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testified at a Senate hearing.

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