(WASHINGTON) — Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw faced a Senate grilling Thursday as Washington lawmakers hold their first hearing on railroad safety about a month after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.
Committee chairman Tom Carper, D-Del. pointedly asked Shaw: “Yes or no — will you commit that Norfolk Southern will be there for as long as it takes to make East Palestine, Ohio, Darlington Township in Pennsylvania, and the surrounding communities recover from this disaster?”
“I’m terribly sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the folks of that community. And yes, it’s my personal commitment that’s Norfolk Southern that we’re going to be there for as long as it takes to help East Palestine thrive and recover. That’s my personal commitment,” Shaw said in response on Thursday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
“I am determined to make this right. Norfolk Southern will claim the site safely, thoroughly and with urgency. You have my personal commitment,” he said during his testimony.
On the eve of his Senate testimony, Shaw said his company was committed to improve rail safety in a Washington Post op-ed.
“We are not waiting to act” while NTSB investigates what happened in East Palestine, and probing Norfolk Southern’s safety culture overall, Shaw wrote.
“We are firmly committed to the residents of East Palestine and the surrounding communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania,” Shaw continued. “Many of the people I’ve met are angry, scared and concerned about the future. I understand their skepticism that a big corporation such as Norfolk Southern will do the right thing, and we are determined to earn their trust.”
Early in Thursday’s hearing, it became clear there will be a partisan divide in assessing how the Biden administration has responded. Carper, in his opening remarks, took time to thank the EPA for what he said was quick action.
“It’s worth noting that the Biden administration has been on the ground from day one. As we will hear today, the EPA, working alongside state and local partners, arrived in East Palestine within hours after the derailment and has maintained a presence ever since. In fact, Administrator Regan has visited the area three times already,” Carper said.
But Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia criticized the EPA for what she said was a lack of transparency that left citizens in East Palestine scared and confused.
“The public deserved a better level of transparency and much much sooner. A month after the accident it is clear to me that the EPA’s risk communication strategy fell short in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Impacted communities were clamoring for answers,” Capito said.
She said citizens of East Palestine were directed to generic EPA websites and left uncertain about what actions would be taken to protect them.
“Why did it take weeks for the EPA administrator to drink the water he repeatedly told residents was safe?” Capito questioned. “Why did it take almost a month to establish a response center and go door to door to East Palestine families concerned?
Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown and JD Vance, who introduced bipartisan railroad safety legislation last week, appeared as witnesses, along with representatives from the EPA, Ohio EPA, Beaver County Department of Emergency Services and Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission.
“If Norfolk Southern had paid a little more attention to safety, and a little less attention to its profits had cared a little more about the Ohioans along its tracks in a little less about its executives and shareholders, these accidents would not have been bad or maybe not happened at all,” Brown, a Democrat, said Thursday. “It’s Norfolk Southern’s responsibility to keep its workers safe on the job. This company has failed to do its job, over and over and over.”
Vance, a conservative Republican, said his party is facing a choice of whether to back a billion-dollar industry or the working-class people he said the Republican Party has increasingly come to represent.
He spoke of working across the aisle with Democrats — even bucking some members of his party — to deliver effective legislation for Ohio’s working class.
“We are faced with a choice with this legislation and how we respond to this crisis. Do we do the bidding of a massive industry that is embedded with big government? Or do we do the bidding of the people who elected us to the Senate into the Congress in the first place?” he said.
“I’m a Republican. I’m a pretty conservative Republican and I worry that there has been a movement in my party and in my movement in response to the legislation that I proposed that would not hold Norfolk Southern or the rail industry accountable,” Vance said.
Carper delivered a statement from Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., who is currently hospitalized to receive treatment for clinical depression.
“My hope is that we answered this disaster caused by egregious negligence from Norfolk Southern with real policy solutions that will hold Norfolk Southern and other similar companies accountable while making American families safer in the future.”
The hearing comes on the heels of a second derailment on Saturday and after the National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday that it would launch a special investigation of Norfolk Southern’s safety and culture. The last time the NTSB made such a move was in 2014, when it investigated Metro North for several significant accidents.
“Given the number and significance of recent Norfolk Southern accidents, the NTSB also urges the company to take immediate action today to review and assess its safety practices, with the input of employees and others, and implement necessary changes to improve safety,” the NTSB said.
Earlier this week, Norfolk Southern also reported a fatal injury of one of their conductors — in addition to several precious fatal accidents of their employees in recent years.
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