(NewsNation) — Norfolk Southern has come under fire since the derailment of a train in East Palestine, Ohio, that was carrying hazardous materials. Authorities ended up performing a controlled release of vinyl chloride, a chemical that is considered a carcinogen, to avoid a more dangerous explosion.
Because many in the community have reported health problems, even after an evacuation order was lifted, the company and its CEO, Alan Shaw, have come under fire for their response. Many fear the air, water and ground are still contaminated, despite officials’ assurances otherwise.
Now, Shaw will testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Thursday about the derailment. Here’s what to know before then:
Q: Who is Alan Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern?
A: Shaw, according to the Norfolk Southern website, has been the chief executive officer of the company since May 1, 2022. He has previously served as executive vice president, chief marketing officer and president. Shaw’s time at Norfolk Southern started in 1994.
Q: What is Shaw’s salary?
A: According to Norfolk Southern’s 2022 proxy statement, Shaw made a total of $4.3 million in 2021.
Q: What can we expect to see at Thursday’s hearing?
A: Politico reports that Shaw is expected to offer senators a plan to deal with the toxic derailment that falls short of the Biden administration’s demands — leading to a potential clash with Congress. Although a majority of the steps the rail company is promising relate to one potential cause of the derailment — addressing overheating wheels — Politico writes that lawmakers and the administration want broader steps to improve rail safety and working conditions.
In a statement to The Hill, a spokesperson said Shaw will “share what he knows” about the incident.
“As the (NTSB) has noted, there are also industry-wide issues, and we would expect that other industry participants will also be involved in future hearings,” the spokesperson said. “The rail industry needs to learn as much as it can from East Palestine, as can the owners of the rail cars.”
East Palestine residents are traveling to the hearing as well, according to a news release from River Valley Organizing.
“We’re going to be at the hearing to give our community a voice,” said East Palestine resident and RVO organizer Jami Cozza. “This shouldn’t be about scoring political points — this should be about people in power making sure our community has what it needs to recover. We have been loud and clear: We need widespread relocation, independent environmental testing, ongoing medical monitoring, and safe toxic waste disposal.”
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Carper, (D-Delaware), said members of the panel want to know about a variety of issues regarding Norfolk.
“What did they do well? What did they do badly? What are they doing to address things that they botched? What are they doing since the incident occurred in order to make people feel cared for, cared about?” Carper said on CNBC. “When we walk out of there, I want to make sure that Norfolk Southern is doing what they need to do to make this right. Not just with respect to the folks in the community, but also in terms of the movement of these hazardous substances all over our country, even as we speak.”
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said he plans to ask how Norfolk Southern will guarantee an accident like this never happens again.
“We need to make sure that Norfolk Southern pays for all of it. They owe East Palestine for the damage which they have done,” he told NewsNation.
Another senator, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she wants to talk to Shaw about the number of people Norfolk Southern has laid off, while Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he’s curious to see how sensors that identify potential problems communicate with the dispatch center of the engineer on the train.
“My understanding is there’s technology that measures that stuff — that measures that temperatures, that senses a potential failing of an axle,” Cramer said. “But it does no good to sense it if you can’t communicate to the person that can do something about stopping the train.”
Federal investigators have said the Norfolk Southern train crew received a warning about a mechanical problem shortly before an axle failed and caused the Ohio derailment.
Q: How politically active have Norfolk Southern and Shaw been before the hearing?
A: The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that multiple political action committees associated with Norfolk Southern have been contributing to Ohio politicians for years. Last year, the railroad gave $5,000 to reelect Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, and $10,000 to his transition fund. Shaw himself, the newspaper wrote, has not donated to any Ohio politicians personally, though he has given money to Norfolk Southern’s good government fund. That, according to the Enquirer, is a nonpartisan political fund for employees and shareholders.
While the Enquirer notes that Norfolk Southern donates largely to Republicans, filings the newspaper looked at show the company has also contributed to Democrats. Notable donations by the company include $4,000 to Republican Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman and $2,000 to Republican House Majority Leader Bill Seitz.
Q: What consequences has Norfolk Southern faced since the derailment?
A: The company will be responsible for cleaning up the mess from the disaster, the Environmental Protection Agency has said, but the agency has to approve its plan.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan ordered the company to comply. He said if it does not, Norfolk Southern will be charged three times the cost of the cleanup.
Most recently, the NTSB said it is opening a special investigation into Norfolk Southern. The Washington Post reports that this will focus on the company’s safety culture, especially after five serious incidents involving the railroad, including the East Palestine derailment. Three of these, per the Post, have involved the deaths of workers.
The NTSB also urged the company to take immediate action to review and assess its safety practices. Norfolk Southern must take actions that “match the severity of recent incidents,” the NTSB said.
“The continued safe operations of Norfolk Southern is vital to the United States,” the board said in a statement. “The NTSB is concerned that several organizational factors may be involved in the accidents, including safety culture.”
A number of people have also filed lawsuits against the railroad.
The Associated Press and NewsNation digital producer Steph Whiteside contributed to this report.