Full coverage: Senate hearing on toxic East Palestine train derailment
Norfolk Southern's CEO and a number of environmental officials were among those testifying.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw was among those who testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works as it investigates last month’s train derailment and chemical release in East Palestine, Ohio. Along with the rail company chief, the other officials appearing on the panel were Debra Shore, a regional director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Anne Vogel, director of the Ohio EPA; Richard Harrison, executive director and chief engineer for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission; and Eric Brewer, the director and chief of hazardous materials response for Beaver County Pennsylvania Department of Emergency Services.
Norfolk Southern came under scrutiny after one of its trains derailed minutes from the Ohio-Pennsylvania border on the evening of Feb. 3, with the governors of both states issuing a joint evacuation order for a roughly 1-mile radius, since 11 of the cars contained hazardous materials. On Feb. 6, Norfolk Southern burned off five tankers full of vinyl chloride in what it said was an effort to avoid a catastrophic explosion, but it resulted in images of a giant toxic smoke plume that quickly circulated on social media. Two days later, residents were urged to return home, despite a lingering smell in the air and reports of symptoms such as dizziness, headaches and rashes.
Related: How dangerous train derailments affect communities like East Palestine >>>
Before Shaw and the environmental officials testified, Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, and Bob Casey, D-Pa., also appeared before their Senate peers. Last week, Brown and Vance introduced legislation that would improve railroad safety in the wake of the derailment, a bill that is co-sponsored by Casey.
Our live coverage has concluded but you can see the highlights of the hearing below.
'I didn't think we heard as many unequivocal answer "yeses" as I might like to have,' committee chairman concludes
(Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
In his closing remarks, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, lamented the lack of straight-shooting answers from Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw during Thursday's hearing.
"I'm not a big fan, Mr. Shaw, of 'yes' [or] 'no' answers. That's not usually my style. But I didn't think we heard as many unequivocal answer 'yeses' as I might like to have, and we might want to revisit that at another time," Carper said.
Earlier during the hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., accused Shaw of sounding "like a politician" when asked about addressing the health care needs of his workers.
Carper also spoke directly to Shaw about a string of recent safety incidences involving Norfolk Southern, including a derailment that occurred earlier Thursday morning.
"It's more than disconcerting. It's concerning. And it's a trend that's troubling to me and my guess is it's troubling to you as well," Carper said.
Norfolk Southern hammered for billions in stock buybacks
Numerous committee members, including Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., attacked Norfolk Southern for putting profits over safety, highlighting the billions they’ve spent on stock buybacks in recent years. The rail company spent $7.5 billion in 2021 and 2022 in buybacks and have announced plans to spend billions more. When CEO Alan Shaw said that they had invested in safety and it was improving, Markey cited the recent spate of derailments and said, "You are not having a good month."
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, had criticized the company in testimony at the beginning of the hearing, saying, “If Norfolk Southern had paid a little more attention to safety and a little less attention to profits, had cared a little more about the Ohioans along its tracks and a little less about its executives and shareholders, these accidents would not have been as bad or maybe not happened at all."
'Everything is on the table' when it comes to residents' healthcare needs, Norfolk Southern CEO says
(Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Brendan Smiakowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. pressed Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw about covering the healthcare needs of residents affected by the train derailment, saying, "You talked about covering the needs of the people of East Palestine. Does that include paying for their health care needs? All of their health care needs?"
"Everything is on the table, sir," Shaw said in response.
Sanders also grilled Shaw over the health care needs of his own employees, some of whom currently have zero paid sick days.
"All do respect, you sound like a politician here, Mr. Shaw," Sanders said. "Paid sick days is not a radical concept in the year 2023. I am not hearing you make that commitment to guarantee that to all of your workers."
"I'm committed to continuing to speak to our employees about quality of life issues that are important to them," Shaw replied, declining to explicitly endorse guaranteed sick days for his employees.
Another Norfolk Southern derailment noted during hearing
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said during his questioning that another Norfolk Southern train had derailed on Thursday morning. According to an ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Ala., the train derailed just before 7 a.m. in Calhoun County. Per the outlet, local authorities said said there were no hazardous materials present and no injuries.
Graham calls on Biden to visit East Palestine
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he felt that President Biden should visit East Palestine, Ohio, and ask Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw and Debra Shore, the EPA regional administrator for the area, to join him. Biden was criticized by the East Palestine mayor for visiting Ukraine before he traveled to the site of the accident. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, EPA Administrator Michael Regan and former President Donald Trump are among those who've been to the area in the weeks since the derailment.
Sanders grills Norfolk Southern CEO
Under questioning from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw declined to say he'd support the elimination of Precision Scheduled Railroading, a system instituted by freight rail companies over the last decade meant to increase efficiency and profits by using longer and heavier trains as well as smaller staffs. Shaw did say that since taking over as CEO, he's "charted a new course in the industry."
"I said we're going to move away from a near term focus solely on profits," Shaw testified. "And then we're going to take a longer term view that's founded on our engagement with our craft employees who are so critical to our success."
What chemicals spilled, and how could they affect residents?
Five toxic chemicals have been identified around the derailment site:
• Vinyl chloride, a colorless and flammable gas, is used to produce plastic for packaging materials and a range of electronic, medical and construction products. Symptoms of exposure include drowsiness, disorientation, numbness and tingling of the extremities and nausea, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• Butyl acrylate, a colorless liquid with a strong, fruity odor, is often used to produce various plastics, polymers, coatings and resins. Exposure to the chemical can cause irritation to the eyes and skin, rashes and breathing difficulties, according to the CDC.
• Isobutylene, a colorless gas, is used to produce plastics, packaging materials and resins. Exposure can cause symptoms such as dizziness and headache, but a cargo manifest provided to the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that Norfolk Southern saw “no signs of breach” with the car carrying this chemical
• Ethylhexyl acrylate, a colorless liquid that is commonly used to produce plastics and polymers, and ethylene glycol, a synthetic compound used in inks, paint, hydraulic brake fluids and antifreeze, can both cause irritation of the skin and eyes, as well as sore throat and nausea with exposure at high concentrations.
Shaw declines to support Railway Safety Act
(Photo by Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw declined to explicitly support the bipartisan Railway Safety Act when asked, saying, "We are committed to the legislative intent to make rail safer." Shaw said he supported tighter standards for tanker cars and more funding for first responders.
Previously, the company had “opposed additional speed limitations and requiring ECP brakes” in a 2015 lobbying disclosure. Norfolk Southern has seen an increase in both profits and accidents in recent years, because it runs longer, heavier trains while cutting the workforce.
Norfolk Southern promises long-term support
Under questioning from Senate Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw committed to his company staying as long as it takes to make the communities affected by the accident whole, including paying for long-term medical care and environmental testing.
Accident rate spiked over the past decade
The country’s major freight railroads were becoming more dangerous even before the train wreck in East Palestine.
Norfolk Southern had the biggest increase in its accident rate over the past 10 years, rising nearly three times as fast as the industry average, according to an analysis by Politico’s E&E News of Federal Railroad Administration data. The company's accident rate jumped 80.8% between 2013 and 2022, to 3.658 accidents per million miles traveled, from 2.023. Norfolk is one of seven "Class 1" railroads. Overall, the group had 27% more accidents, a rate of 3.067 accidents per million miles traveled, up from a rate of 2.415 in 2013.