WASHINGTON (AP) — The CEO of Norfolk Southern apologized before Congress Thursday and pledged millions of dollars to help East Palestine, Ohio, recover the burning, dangerous train derailment while senators examine railroad safety and the Biden administration’s response to the disaster.
“I want to start today by expressing how sorry I am for the impact this derailment has had on residents of eastern Palestine and the surrounding communities,” CEO Alan Shaw said at the Senate Environment and Public Works hearing.
Shaw added he’s “determined to make this right,” with a $20 million commitment to date to help the community recover. Norfolk Southern’s ultimate financial responsibility is expected to go well beyond this following legal proceedings.
The company has announced several voluntary security upgrades. But senators have promised an urgent probe into the derailment, the company’s safety practices and emergency response after the overturn of 38 train cars, including 11 carrying hazardous materials. Federal regulators have also said Norfolk Southern needs to do more to improve safety.
No one was injured in the crash, but state and local officials decided not to 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. Next to it are scenes of smoke clouds above the village outcry from local residents that they are still suffering from diseases, have paid close attention to railway safety and the transport of hazardous materials.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the committee chair, opened the hearing by calling it “an opportunity to put us in the shoes of those affected by this disaster to consider the immediate response and establish long-term accountability for the clean-up work”.
Carper joined the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Shelley Capito of West Virginia, in a call with reporters on Wednesday to stress that they would work bipartisanly “to be accountable to the communities and people affected.”
The catastrophe in East Palestine, as well as a number of other recent train derailments, have sparked a demonstration of bipartisanship in the Senate. The committee will also hear from Ohio and Pennsylvania senators Thursday — Republican JD Vance and Democrats Sherrod Brown and Bob Casey — pushing for it new safety regulations called the Railway Safety Act of 2023.
“It shouldn’t take a train derailment for elected officials to put aside partiality and work together for the people we serve — not for corporations like Norfolk Southern,” Brown said in prepared remarks. “Railway lobbyists have fought for years by any means necessary to tighten the rules to make our trains and rail lines safer. Now Ohioans are paying the price.”
Train derailments have become less frequent, but last year there were still more than 1,000, according to officials Federal Railway Administration. But even a single train derailment involving hazardous materials can be devastating.
Noting that a train derailed in her home state of West Virginia on Wednesday, Capito called the hearing the Senate’s first step among several on railroad safety and emergency response.
Hazmat shipments account for 7% to 8% of the approximately 30 million shipments that railroads deliver in the United States each year. But railroads often mix shipments and have a car or two full of hazardous materials on almost every train.
The Association of American Railroads trade group says that 99.9% of dangerous goods shipments reach their destination safely, and railroads are widely recognized as the safest option for moving hazardous chemicals overland.
But the legislator wants to make railways safer. The 2023 Railroad Safety Act, supported by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., would require the installation of more detectors to check wheel bearing temperatures more frequently to ensure railroads tell states about those of them transport hazardous materials, and fund hazardous materials training for first responders.
Meanwhile, House Republicans have expressed skepticism about passing new railroad regulations. GOP senators discussed the bill at their weekly lunch on Tuesday, but Senator Mike Rounds, RS.D., said most would prefer the bill ironed out in committee.
Vance, an Ohio senator who won the election for the first time last November, slammed other Republicans who opposed his bill and said they would ignore a shift in the GOP to appeal to working-class voters.
“We have a choice: are we for big corporations and big governments or for the people of East Palestine?” he said.
Norfolk Southern is also under pressure from federal authorities. Both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration announced investigations into the company’s safety culture this week. The NTSB said its investigators will be investigating five significant accidents involving Norfolk Southern since December 2021.
The company has said it is making immediate safety improvements, including adding “approximately 200 hot storage detectors” to its network. The NTSB said a detector warned the crew They serviced the train that derailed outside of eastern Palestine on February 3, but they were unable to stop the train before more than three dozen carriages veered off the tracks and caught fire.
The Senate bill also touches on a disagreement between railroad workers’ unions and railroad operators by requiring that train crews remain two. Unions argue railroads are riskier due to job cuts in the industry over the past six years. Nearly a third of all rail jobs have been eliminated, and conductors, they say, are struggling with fatigue from being on call day and night.
At the same time, Republicans are eager to deal with the emergency response to the East Palestine derailment. Representatives of environmental protection at federal, state and local level will also take part in the hearing of the Senate on Thursday.
Debra Shore, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional manager who oversaw the response, said the agency dispatched officers to the scene within hours of being notified of the disaster. But she acknowledged the ongoing fears plaguing the community.
“They are understandably concerned and some are scared. Every time a train whistle blows, they’re reminded of the trauma inflicted on them by Norfolk Southern,” Shore said.
Capito said President Joe Biden should have visited the community after the derailment. The Democratic President has announced that he will visit him at some point. Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg traveled to eastern Palestine last month and urged stricter safety protocols for trains.
Several residents of eastern Palestine made their way to Washington for Thursday’s hearing, including Misti Allison, who has joined a group called Moms Clean Air Force. Officials have told city residents that air and water tests show no dangerous levels of the toxins, but Allison and other residents are concerned about possible long-term effects.
“Everyone here wants it to be good. We want this so bad. Everyone loves this community and nobody wants to leave it. … But if not, we need to know,” Allison said.
In eastern Palestine you can still sometimes smell a chemical odor, she said, adding, “Congress needs to hold Norfolk Southern accountable and these polluters and corporations that run these train bombs through neighborhoods like ours.”
(Copyright (c) 2022 Sunbeam Television. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed.)
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