Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw grilled Ohio State over its derailment

Alan Shaw, president and CEO of Norfolk Southern Corporation, testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on March 9, 2023, in Washington, D.C., on the environmental and public health risks caused by the Feb. 3 train derailment south of Norfolk.

Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

South Norfolk CEO Alan Shaw told a US Senate hearing Thursday that he plans to “fix” one of the company’s trains after it derailed last month in East Palestine, Ohio.

Shaw was speaking at a hearing of the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which is a committee of Democrats. called “risks to the environment and public health” from the derailment.

Shaw told the Senate panel that he “deeply regrets the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and the surrounding communities.”

He promised that the company would completely clean up the site and that it was moving forward. “We will be in the community as long as it takes,” he said, adding that there was “no way” the company would help.

As Shaw testified, news broke of another derailment south of Norfolk, this time in Alabama. About 30 train cars derailed on Thursday, but there were no injuries or hazardous materials related to the derailment.

“You have three derailments here in three months, and the industry average is one a month for the entire industry,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told Shaw during the hearing. good luck in the next few years, but right now your team is the most derailed team in the last three months.”

Shaw, for his part, said Norfolk South is ready to provide financial assistance to affected residents and first responders in the region. The company pledged more than $21 million in compensation and investment.

The CEO was joined by Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Debra Shore, Ohio EPA Director Ann Vogel, Ohio River Valley Water Treatment Commission Executive Director Richard Harrison and Beaver County, Pennsylvania, Emergency Department Director Eric Brewer.

Environmental problems

On February 3, around 9:00 p.m. local time, an eastbound Norfolk Southern freight train carrying 11 cars carrying hazardous materials derailed near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and subsequently caught fire. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the chemicals contain vinyl chloride, a highly flammable carcinogen.

According to Shor, the EPA tested nearly 600 homes in East Palestine and found no vinyl chloride or hydrogen chlorine. He said the EPA currently conducts 24-hour air monitoring at 21 stations throughout the community. Vogel added that the Ohio EPA installed monitoring wells at the derailment site to check for potential groundwater contamination, as well as sentinel wells for long-term groundwater sampling.

Shore said he expects debris from the site to be moved as soon as Thursday. The EPA waited a month before starting to order dioxin testing.

“We detected very low levels that quickly went undetected. Without these baselines, the likelihood of dioxins being present was extremely low,” Shore said. “They’re secondary byproducts of burning vinyl chloride, but we listened to the community and they had serious concerns about toxins.”

There was no script for this. No Trainwreck bandaid for me.

Eric Brewer

Beaver County Clerk

Officials in Texas and Michigan said they did not know if soil and water from the wreckage would be transported to their jurisdictions.

“Michigan officials, the governor, myself, Sen. Peters, the Michigan EPA, were not notified before this happened,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. “This is unacceptable to us.”

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia, said the issue is about trust and accountability.

“If something like this happens again, God forbid, they will have the federal government respond quickly, sensibly, openly and clearly, and the parties responsible will be held accountable,” Capito said.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said there was a miscommunication surrounding first responders who were under the impression that they would ventilate and set fire to just one vehicle, rather than five, leaving some first responders distressed. Brower, the Beaver County official, said the decision was “good.”

“There was no script for this. There wasn’t a connector labeled ‘Trainwreck’ for me,” Brewer said.

The committee heard from Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, as well as Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn). The draft law “On railway safety” of 2023 was introduced. The bill aims to improve safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, establish requirements for trackside fault detection equipment, increase fines for illegal activities and create a minimum requirement for two-person crews.

Shaw endorsed parts of the bill, pledging “legislative intent to make railroads safer.” Shaw said during the hearing that Norfolk Southern installed its first new trackside detector on Wednesday, but he said there was no indication that the detectors were faulty before the East Palestine derailment. Shaw did not address the bill’s provision requiring crews of at least two men on each locomotive.

Shaw declined to say whether Norfolk Southern would commit to fully compensating families for reduced property values ​​when asked by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

No casualties were reported after the East Palestinian derailment, although residents and officials expressed concern. Railroad union representatives told Biden administration officials at a meeting last week that railroad workers had become ill while clearing a site in East Palestine.

Under pressure from Democratic Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Shaw said “everything is on the table” when it comes to covering the health care needs of East Palestinian residents. He also did not directly say whether the company provides sick days to all employees.

Ohio State Senators Speak

Vance expressed dismay at Republicans who oppose the legislation to hold the company accountable, including “those who believe that improving public safety for the railroad industry is somehow a violation of the free market.”

NTSB It released its preliminary report on February 23, which found that overheated wheel bearings contributed to the derailment and fire. At the time the train was ordered to stop, the bearing temperature was 253 degrees above ambient temperature, above the limit of 200 degrees above the Norfolk Southern criteria.

Another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Ohio on Saturday, prompting residents near Springfield to evacuate. There were no dangerous substances in the train, although there was a power outage in the area, there were no casualties.

Hours after that derailment, internal emails obtained by CNBC showed that Norfolk Southern was making extensive safety adjustments to prevent future incidents. A company spokesperson told CNBC that the train carrier is now committed to using allocated power for trains longer than 10,000 feet, so the trains receive power from multiple locations along their length.

The events in South Norfolk have prompted wide-ranging reviews by government agencies. The NTSB said Tuesday it had opened a special investigation into the company’s organizational and safety culture after the derailment. The Federal Railroad Administration also announced that it will conduct an additional 60-day safety evaluation of the company.

“We see what the company has done with great success. Norfolk Southern spent $3.4 billion on stock buybacks last year and plans to do even more this year,” Brown said Thursday. “That’s money that could be used to hire inspectors to install more hot box detectors on rail lines and hire more workers to repair cars and repair tracks.”

The company has cut about 40% of its workforce since 2015, but Shaw said the company is now “aggressively hiring.”

Norfolk Southern announced Wednesday that it will establish a new regional training center for first responders in Ohio and expand its operational awareness and response program, which trains first responders to safely respond to rail incidents. Practice sessions begin March 22 at Norfolk Southern’s Bellevue, Ohio facility.

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