Norfolk Southern CEO pressed on derailment, apologizes

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testifies before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing to examine protecting public health and the environment in the wake of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

(NewsNation) — The CEO of Norfolk Southern apologized to the village on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border disrupted by a toxic train derailment as senators investigate railway safety and the Biden administration’s response to the disaster.

However, he stopped short of endorsing the entire contents of a new bipartisian bill aimed at making the rail industry safer, while saying he supports its “legislative intent.”

“I am deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities, and I am determined to make it right. We will clean the site safely, thoroughly, and with urgency,” Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said at Thursday’s hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Norfolk Southern has announced several voluntary safety upgrades. Federal regulators, though, have said the company must do more to improve safety.

Shaw said the railroad will “do the right thing” with a $21 million commitment to help the Ohio-Pennsylvania border communities recover.

No one was injured in the Feb. 3 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 outcry from residents that they are still suffering from illnesses, have turned high-level attention to railroad safety and how dangerous materials are transported.

The East Palestine disaster as well as a spate of other recent train derailments have sparked a show of bipartisanship in the Senate.

Before Shaw spoke, the committee heard from Ohio Sens. JD Vance, a Republican and Democrat Sherrod Brown, as well as Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey. The three are pushing legislation 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 said. “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.”

When asked if he supports the Railway Safety Act, Shaw said there are a number of provisions Norfolk would approve of. These included training first responders, and new requirements for wayside defect detectors.

However, as The Washington Post pointed out, Shaw did not mention the act’s requirement that freight trains have two crew members.

In Vance’s comments, he called out the rail industry.

“You cannot claim special government privileges,” he said. “You cannot ask the government to bail you out and then resist basic public safety.”

At the hearing, “gaps in communication” that occurred were brought up, with Anne Vogel of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency saying there were missteps following the derailment.

“I do believe those gaps in communication have been addressed, I believe teams are working well together on the ground, but yes, things could have been handled better in the beginning hours,” Vogel said. 

Eric Brewer, director of emergency services in Beaver County, Pa., said that there was a lack of communication from Norfolk Southern’s management. 

“The boots-on-ground crews were great to work with,” Beaver said. “It seems as bosses and management get there, that’s where the communication failures start. That’s probably why we’re here today.” 

Norfolk’s decision,for instance, that they wanted to do a controlled release of vinyl chloride from five tank cars instead of one was “jaw-dropping,” Beaver said.

As the hearing was going on, another Norfolk Southern train derailment was reported in Alabama. The company said in a statement to NewsNation partner The Hill that around 30 empty cars derailed as the train traveled from Atlanta to Mississippi. There were no injuries or hazardous materials released, the statement said.

“I certainly hope that all of your team and anybody in the vicinity is safe and well,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, (D-R.I.). “And well, you may need to look into that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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