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Railway CEO apologises for toxic train crash at US Senate hearing

The CEO of Norfolk Southern Railway has apologized before the US Congress and pledged millions of dollars to help the city of East Palestine, Ohio, recover from the fiery derailment of a hazardous materials train last month.

But Alan Shaw fell short of fully approving stricter safety regulations or specific commitments to pay for long-term health and economic damage.

Speaking at a packed Senate hearing on Thursday, Shaw said his railroad company strongly supports the goal of improving railroad safety, but he also defended his company’s record.

He was closely questioned by both Democrats and Republicans about specific commitments to pay for long-term health and economic damages — and about the decision-making that led to the release and burning of toxic vinyl chloride from five tank trucks — as well as the company’s commitment to safety and helping residents.

“I am terribly sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of that community,” Shaw told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “We will be there for as long as it takes to help eastern Palestine thrive and recover.”

But the condolences and pledge of $20 million in aid so far barely satisfied lawmakers or several residents of eastern Palestine who traveled to Washington, D.C., for the hearing.

“How can we trust that man with our health and the health of our children, if he doesn’t even answer the questions we need,” said Jami Cozza, adding that more than a month after her illness, her family is still sick. the derailment.

The company has announced several voluntary security upgrades. However, senators have promised an urgent investigation into the derailment, the response of President Joe Biden’s administration and the company’s safety practices following the overturning of 38 train cars, including 11 carrying hazardous materials.

Federal regulators have also said Norfolk Southern itself needs to do more to improve safety.

No one was injured in the crash, but state and local officials decided to release toxic vinyl chloride from five tank trucks and burn it, prompting the evacuation of half of eastern Palestine’s approximately 5,000 residents.

Scenes of smoke rising over the village, along with residents’ outrage that they are still sick, have drawn high-level attention to rail safety and how hazardous material is being transported.

Democratic Senator Tom Carper, the committee chair, opened Thursday’s hearing by calling it “an opportunity to put ourselves in the shoes of those affected by this disaster, examine the immediate response and ensure that there is long-term accountability for the cleaning efforts”.

Carper joined the top Republican on the committee, Senator Shelley Capito of West Virginia, in talking to reporters on Wednesday to emphasize that they would work in a bipartisan way “to be accountable to the communities and people affected “.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testifying before the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee on March 9, 2023 (Kevin Wolf/AP Photo)

Senate proposal

The East Palestine disaster and a spate of other recent train derailments have led to a bipartisan show in the Senate.

The committee also heard on Thursday from Ohio and Pennsylvania senators — Republican JD Vance and Democrats Sherrod Brown and Bob Casey — pushing for new safety regulations, the Railroad Safety Act of 2023.

“It doesn’t have to take a train wreck for elected officials to cast aside partisanship and work together for the people we serve — not companies like Norfolk Southern,” Ohio’s Brown said in prepared remarks. “Railway lobbyists have fought for years to strengthen the rules to make our trains and rail lines safer. Now Ohio residents are paying the price.

Train derailments are becoming less common, but last year there were still more than 1,000, 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 presented the hearing as the Senate’s first move between several on railroad safety and emergency relief.

Hazardous material shipments account for 7 to 8 percent of the approximately 30 million shipments that railroads deliver each year in the US. But railroads often combine shipments and can have one or two cars of hazardous materials on almost every train.

The Association of American Railroads trade group says that 99.9 percent of hazardous materials shipments reach their destinations safely and that railroads are generally considered the safest option for transporting hazardous chemicals overland.

But lawmakers want to make railroads safer.

The Railroad Safety Bill of 2023, which has won support from Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, would require installing more detectors to monitor wheel bearing temperatures more frequently, ensuring railroads notify states of the hazardous materials they carry, and fund hazmat training for first responders.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the House of Representatives have expressed skepticism about passing new railroad regulations. GOP senators discussed the bill at their weekly Tuesday luncheon, but Republican Sen. Mike Rounds said most would prefer the bill be ironed out in committee.

Vance, an Ohio senator who first won the election last November, slammed fellow Republicans who rejected his bill by saying they are ignoring a shift in the GOP to appeal to working-class voters.

“We have a choice: are we for big companies and big governments, or are we for the people of eastern Palestine?” he said.

Federal Investigations

Norfolk Southern is also under pressure from federal regulators. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Railroad Administration both announced investigations into the company’s safety culture this week. The NTSB said its investigators will investigate five major Norfolk Southern accidents since December 2021.

The company has said it is immediately implementing safety upgrades, including adding “about 200 hot bearing detectors” to its network. The NTSB has said a detector alerted the crew operating the train that derailed outside eastern Palestine on Feb. 3, but they were unable to 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 unions of railroad workers and operators by requiring train crews to remain two-person.

Unions claim railroads are riskier because of industry job losses over the past six years. Nearly a third of all railway tracks have been cut and train crews, they say, are fatigued from being available day and night.

Shaw said Norfolk Southern has been on a “hiring wave” over the past year, but he did not support other proposed changes, including a requirement to maintain crews of two on freight railroads.

At the same time, Republicans are more willing to delve into emergency relief after the derailment in eastern Palestine. Thursday’s Senate hearing was also attended by environmental protection officials from the federal, state and local levels.

Shaw and the state and federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials who oversaw the cleanup all said they would feel comfortable in eastern Palestine today, as air and water tests all show it safe.

Republicans have repeatedly criticized Biden for not visiting the community in the wake of the derailment. The Democratic president has said he will come at some point, although transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg went to eastern Palestine last month and pushed for stricter train safety protocols.

Several residents of eastern Palestine made their way to Washington, D.C. for Thursday’s hearing, including Misti Allison, who has joined a group called Moms Clean Air Force.

Allison and other residents worry about possible long-term effects, even if tests don’t show dangerous toxin levels.

“Everyone here wants it to work out. We so want that to be true. Everyone loves this community and no one wants to leave,” said Allison. “But if not, we need to know.”

A chemical odor can still be smelled at times in eastern Palestine, she said, adding, “Congress must hold Norfolk Southern and these polluters and corporations that run these train bombs through neighborhoods like ours accountable.”