Norfolk Southern CEO brings apology, help to Senate hearing

WASHINGTON (AP) – The CEO of one of the nation’s largest railroads is coming to a Senate hearing with an apology and a commitment to send millions of dollars to the village on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border disrupted by a fiery derailment as senators examine rail safety and the Biden administration’s response to the disaster.

“I am deeply saddened by the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and the surrounding communities, and I am determined to make it right,” Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said in prepared remarks released ahead of Thursday’s hearing by Senate Committee. on the environment and public works.

Shaw says the railroad will do “the right thing” with a $20 million commitment to help the community recover.

The company has announced more voluntary security upgrades. However, senators have promised an urgent investigation into the derailment, the company’s safety practices and the emergency response to the rollover of 38 rail cars, including 11 containing hazardous materials. Federal regulators have also said Norfolk Southern needs to do more to improve safety.

No one was injured in the accident, but state and local officials decided to do so release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five tankers, which led to the evacuation of half of the approximately 5,000 inhabitants of East Palestine. Scenes of billowing smoke over the village next door outcry from the residents that they still suffer from disease has drawn high-level attention to rail safety and how hazardous materials are transported.

“I want to hear what they did wrong, what mistakes they made,” said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the chairman of the committee. “There have been a number of criticisms of what they did and to have him respond to those criticisms on the record.”

Carper joined the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Shelley Capito of West Virginia, in a call with reporters Wednesday to emphasize that they would work bipartisanly “to deliver accountability to the communities and people who have been impacted.” “

The disaster in eastern Palestine, as well as a spate of other recent train derailments, has sparked a show of bipartisanship in the Senate. The committee on Thursday will also hear from Ohio and Pennsylvania senators — one Republican and two Democrats — who are pushing new safety regulations called the Railway Safety Act of 2023.

Train derailments have become less common, but there were still more than 1,000 of them last year, according to data compiled by Federal Railroad Administration. But even a single train derailment involving hazardous materials can be catastrophic.

Noting that a train derailed in her home state of West Virginia on Wednesday, Capito saw the hearing as the Senate’s first of several steps on rail safety and emergency preparedness. The new security provisions will likely have to be considered in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Hazardous materials shipments account for 7% to 8% of the approximately 30 million shipments that railroads deliver across the United States each year. But railroads often mix shipments and may have one or two cars of hazardous materials on almost any train.

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

But lawmakers in Washington want to make railroads safer. The Railway Safety Act of 2023, which has the support of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., would require more detectors to be installed to check the temperature of wheel bearings more often, make sure that railroads notify states about the hazardous materials they transport and funds hazmat training for first responders.

Meanwhile, House Republicans have expressed skepticism about passing new rules on railroads. GOP senators are looking at the bill and discussed it at their weekly luncheon Tuesday, but Sen. Mike Rounds, RS.D., said most of his caucus would prefer the bill be passed in committee.

Norfolk Southern is also under pressure from federal regulators. Both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration announced studies 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 security upgrades, including adding “approximately 200 heat-bed detectors” to its network. The NTSB has said a detector warned the crew drove the train that derailed on February 3 outside East Palestine, but they were unable to stop the train before more than three dozen cars derailed and caught fire.

Republican Senator JD Vance of Ohio pointed to these voluntary steps as a sign that his bill was “on the right track.” But Democratic sponsors of the legislation have said the rules should require operators to go further.

The Senate bill also touches on a disagreement between railroad workers’ unions and operators by requiring train crews to continue to have two people. Unions argue that railways are riskier because of cutbacks in the industry over the past six years. Nearly a third of all railroad jobs were eliminated, and train crews, they say, are dealing with fatigue because they are on duty night and day.

At the same time, the Republicans are more eager to delve into the emergency preparedness of the East Palestinian derailment. Thursday’s Senate hearing will also feature environmental protection officials from the federal, state and local levels.

“The people of East Palestine need to know that we care,” Capito said. “We will investigate the environmental and safety response.”

She said President Joe Biden should have visited the community in the wake of the derailment. The Democratic president has said he will visit the community at some point, but the White House has not released specific plans. Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg went to East Palestine last month and has pushed for increased safety protocols for trains.

Several East Palestinian residents were heading to Washington for Thursday’s hearing, including Misti Allison, who has joined a group called Moms Clean Air Force. Officials keep telling city residents that air and water tests show no dangerous levels of toxins, but Allison and other residents worry about the potential long-term effects.

“Everybody here wants it to be good. We want it so badly to be true. Everybody loves this community and nobody wants to leave. … But if it’s not, we need to know, Allison said.

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

Allison said the railroad now appears to be trying to help the community, but initially Norfolk Southern seemed more concerned with getting trains running again than cleaning up the mess.

“They’re going to try to deal with it right now … no matter how their initial response and how they handled it, you could tell it was very clear that at the end of the day it’s a business and they’re going to do whatever they have to do for their profit margins,” she said.

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