The CEO of Norfolk Southern Railway has apologised before the United States Congress and pledged millions of dollars to help the town of East Palestine, Ohio, recover from last month’s fiery derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials.
But Alan Shaw 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 on Thursday, 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 — and about the decision-making that led to the release and burn of toxic vinyl chloride from five tanker cars — as well as the company’s commitment to safety and helping residents.
“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 $20m in aid so far hardly satisfied lawmakers or several East Palestine residents who travelled to Washington, DC, 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 more than a month after the derailment.
The company has announced several voluntary safety upgrades. Senators, however, have promised a pressing inquiry into the derailment, President Joe Biden’s 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.
Democratic Senator Tom Carper, the chair of the committee, opened Thursday’s hearing by calling it “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, Senator Shelley Capito of West Virginia, in a call with reporters on Wednesday to emphasise they would work in a 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. 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 the emergency response.
Hazardous materials shipments account for 7 to 8 percent of the roughly 30 million shipments railroads deliver across the US 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 on land.
But legislators want to make railroads safer.
The Railway Safety Act of 2023, which has gained support from Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, 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, Republicans in the House of Representatives have voiced scepticism about passing new regulations on railroads. GOP senators discussed the bill in their weekly luncheon on Tuesday but Republican Senator Mike Rounds 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.
Norfolk Southern is also under pressure from federal regulators. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Federal Railroad Administration both announced investigations this week into the company’s safety culture. The NTSB said its investigators will look into five significant accidents involving Norfolk Southern since December 2021.
The company has said it is immediately implementing safety upgrades, including adding “approximately 200 hot bearing detectors” to its network. The NTSB has said a detector warned the crew operating the train that derailed on February 3 outside East Palestine, but they could not stop the train before more than three dozen cars came off the tracks and caught fire.
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 past six years. Nearly one-third 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 did not back other proposed changes including a requirement to maintain two-person crews on freight railroads.
Republicans, at the same time, are more eager to delve into the emergency response to the East Palestine derailment. Thursday’s Senate hearing also featured environmental protection officials from the federal, state and local levels.
Shaw and the state and federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials, who have been overseeing the cleanup, all said they would be comfortable living in East Palestine today because air and water tests all show it is safe.
Republicans have repeatedly criticised Biden for not visiting the community in the aftermath of the derailment. The Democratic president has said he will visit at some point, though transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg went to East Palestine last month and has pressed for increased safety protocols for trains.
Several East Palestine residents made their way to Washington, DC for Thursday’s hearing, including Misti Allison, who has joined a group called Moms Clean Air Force.
Allison and other residents worry about potential long-term effects even if tests do not show dangerous toxin levels.
“Everybody here wants it to be fine. We want that to be true so badly. Everybody loves this community and nobody wants to leave,” Allison said. “But if it’s not, we need to know that.”
A chemical odour can still be smelled in East Palestine at times, she said, adding: “Congress must hold accountable Norfolk Southern and these polluters and companies that run these train bombs through neighbourhoods like ours.”