Norfolk Southern president vows help for derailment victims but hedges on new rail safety laws
Norfolk Southern Railway President Alan Shaw when testifying to a Senate panel on Thursday refused to commit to backing bipartisan legislation by Ohio’s two senators that would impose new regulations on the rail industry, including new procedures for carrying hazardous materials.
The bill by Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, was in response to the horrific train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that spilled toxic chemicals into the town and left residents scared and frustrated.
Mr. Shaw said he was “deeply sorry” for the accident and “determined to make this right.” But he wasn’t ready to buy in on the Brown-Vance bill.
In testimony before the panel, Mr. Vance said the legislation is comprised of “reasonable public safety enhancements,” and he pushed back against critics in his party who see it as government overreach.
“We have a choice: Are we for big business and big government or are we for the people of East Palestine?” Mr. Vance said. “It is a time for choosing – let’s make the right one.”
The Feb. 3 train derailment has led to an intense round of fingerpointing and blameshifting over who is responsible for the mess, what could have been done to prevent the accident, and what should be done to improve rail safety moving forward.
Mr. Shaw stopped short of spelling out how far the company is willing to go when it comes to covering residents’ healthcare costs and compensating citizens for lost property values and lost business.
Before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Mr. Shaw said, “You have my personal commitment” that Norfolk Southern “will get the job done and help East Palestine thrive.”
“I am committed to doing what is right,” he said. “We are going to be there today, tomorrow, a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now.”
The cleanup and the political fallout continue.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has taken heat from liberals and conservatives alike for waiting nearly three weeks before visiting East Palestine and not putting more of his energy into enhancing rail safety before the accident.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said at the hearing that it is long past time that President Biden visits the crash site.
“What is the downside of talking to people about going through a big trauma,” Mr. Graham said. “Him going there doesn’t fix all the problems, but I think it is a step in the right direction, and I just wish he would go there so we could all work to solve the problem.”
The initial report from the National Transportation Safety Board said overheated wheel bearings appeared to have led to the derailment.
The NTSB announced earlier this week it is launching a special investigation into Norfolk Southern’s “organization and safety culture.”
Mr. Shaw‘s testimony before the committee came hours after another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Calhoun County, Alabama. There were no reports of injuries or chemical spills.
In Thursday’s hearing, Democrats on the panel said they fear the accident in East Palestine was preventable and said Norfolk Southern has had misplaced priorities.
Instead of investing more of the company’s profits into rail safety and the workforce, Democrats said the company funneled billions of dollars in stock buybacks for shareholders and tens of millions into lobbying against proposed safety regulations.
Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon asked, “Will you pledge today that you will do no more stock buybacks until a raft of safety measures have been completed to reduce the risk of derailments and crashes in the future?”
Mr. Shaw hedged. He said the company spends $1 billion a year on rail safety measures that have led to fewer derailments, fewer hazardous material spills and fewer injuries.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, tried and failed to get Mr. Shaw to commit to providing guaranteed paid sick days to his entire workforce, or covering “all of the health care needs” for the people of East Palestine.
“I think all of us is committed to doing what is right, but the devil is in the details,” Mr. Sanders said.
Sen. Edward Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said the company should also cover the costs of all the value families have lost in their homes and businesses.
Republicans raised concerns about the company’s lack of transparency.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the ranking Republican on the committee, said there were dangerous lapses in communication with state and federal authorities in the immediate aftermath of the East Palestine derailment
“I am still very concerned about the communication issue,” Ms. Capito said, noting that it is still unclear where the hazardous materials are being shipped.