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Senators grill the Norfolk Southern CEO over the East Palestine rail disaster

Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, remained on fire by the following day on Feb. 4, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar
Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, remained on fire by the following day on Feb. 4, 2023.

Updated March 9, 2023 at 12:53 PM ET

In a bipartisan fashion, senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing Thursday calling for answers from railroad executives and federal emergency response officials as they seek justice for residents of East Palestine, Ohio.

The hearing examined the environmental and public health threats from last month's train derailment, in which several tank cars carrying hazardous materials caught fire and released toxic chemicals into the air, soil and ground water in and around the crash site.

During questioning, lawmakers asked about paid sick leave for workers, the environmental safety after the spill and what Norfolk Southern is doing to help residents.

"I am terribly sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the folks of that community," said Alan Shaw, CEO of Norfolk Southern. "Yes, it is my commitment and Norfolk Southern's commitment that we are going to be there for as long as it takes to help East Palestine thrive and recover."

In response to questions from committee chair Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., Shaw said the company was prepared to be there "10 years from now" if that's what it takes to recover but made no explicit monetary or resource commitments.

EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore testified that the agency issued an administrative order last month that will hold Norfolk Southern accountable for all EPA costs related to the cleanup and restoration of East Palestine.

"If the company doesn't comply with EPA's order, then EPA can step in and continue the work so there is no disruption in the essential cleanup," Shore said. "We will be vigorous about holding the company accountable.

Asking about paid leave and health care needs

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked Shaw if he would make the commitment to give paid sick leave for all workers.

"I am committed to speaking to our employees about quality of life issues that are important to them," Shaw said.

Railroad companies came under pressure at the end of last year when unions threatened to go on strike twice over the lack of sick leave in proposed union contracts. Congress ultimately passed a bill that mandated unions accept the contract without the sick leave asked for.

Sanders also echoed questions from colleagues on whether or not the company will cover the health care costs of East Palestine residents.

Shaw said, "everything is on the table."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who called on President Biden to visit Ohio, also asked Shaw if he felt it would be safe to live in East Palestine.

"I believe that the air is safe. I believe that water is safe," Shaw said.

Senators call for more regulations

The hearing's first witness, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., noted that residents of Beaver County in Pennsylvania — not far from the accident site — are "scared, particularly the potential exposure that could lead to health impacts to themselves and their families for years," Casey said. He advocated for an effort he's leading with Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, that would increase penalties on railroad companies and increase safety requirements.

"It's bipartisan — that never happens around here on big bills," Casey said. "It would be a good start by Norfolk Southern to tell us today that they support the bill."

Brown, who has visited East Palestine, called on Norfolk Southern CEO Shaw to make a financial commitment to cover the cleanup, environmental testing and health care costs "however long it takes to make this community whole."

Brown noted that a second train derailed in Springfield, Ohio.

"The only thing that saved Ohioans from disaster was luck, but we need more than that," Brown said.

Vance, also testifying before Senate colleagues, echoed similar concerns.

"I am a realist. I recognize that you are always going to have accidents but I think that we can make them less likely," Vance said. "I am a Republican, a pretty conservative Republican, and I worry that there has been a movement in my party and against the legislation I have proposed."

He added he believed railroad deregulation was good for consumers but "that doesn't mean we cannot have reasonable safety enhancements in response to what happened in East Palestine."

Testimony from Norfolk Southern

Already under intense public scrutiny for its safety practices following the explosive freight train derailment last month, as well as other recent incidents, Shaw is looking to get ahead of criticism on safety procedures.

"I am determined to make this right," Shaw said in his opening testimony, adding that Norfolk Southern will clean the site. He argued the water and air are safe.

Norfolk Southern is trying to get out in front on the safety issue ahead of what is expected to be an intense grilling of Shaw on his company's safety record, announcing several steps the railroad is taking in an effort to improve safety.

The moves comes after two more serious rail accidents in Ohio in recent days, including another freight train derailment in Springfield over the weekend, and the death of a Norfolk Southern conductor who was fatally struck by a dump truck at a rail crossing at a steel plant in Cleveland early Tuesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board cited those crashes, the East Palestine derailment and two other Norfolk Southern fatal incidents over the last 15 months, as it opened up a broad investigation into Norfolk Southern's organization and safety culture this week.

"Given the number and significance of recent Norfolk Southern accidents ... the NTSB is concerned that several organizational factors may be involved in the accidents, including safety culture," the board says in its press release. "The NTSB will conduct an in-depth investigation into the safety practices and culture of the company. At the same time, the company should not wait to improve safety and the NTSB urges it to do so immediately."

The Federal Railroad Administration is also widening its investigation into the railroad company, announcing this week that it will conduct a 60-day safety review of Norfolk Southern.

"After a series of derailments and the death of one of its workers," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement, "we are initiating this further supplemental safety review of Norfolk Southern, while also calling on Norfolk Southern to act urgently to improve its focus on safety so the company can begin earning back the trust of the public and its employees."

Following the fatal incident early Tuesday morning in Cleveland, Norfolk Southern CEO Shaw issued a statement announcing new safety briefings "reaching every employee across our network," starting Wednesday.

"Moving forward, we are going to rebuild our safety culture from the ground up," Shaw said. "We are going to invest more in safety. This is not who we are, it is not acceptable, and it will not continue."

The Association of American Railroads, the main lobbying group for the seven major large, class one freight railroads, announced Wednesday a number of steps that the industry will be taking to improve safety in the wake of the East Palestine disaster and other derailments.

The measures include a focus on strengthening the network of trackside detectors that railroads use to spot overheating and other problems on railcar wheelsets and other equipment before they cause a derailment, as well as tank car safety improvements.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.