WASHINGTON — (TNS)The head of Norfolk Southern Corp. pledged at a Senate hearing Thursday to fully restore environmental and economic conditions in the Ohio community where one of the company’s trains derailed last month, triggering a fire and public health concerns.
“I am determined to make this right,” Alan Shaw, the rail company’s president and CEO, told the Environment and Public Works Committee during the first congressional hearing on the incident. “Norfolk Southern will clean the site safely, thoroughly and with urgency. You have my personal commitment. Norfolk Southern will get the job done and help East Palestine thrive.”
Shaw said the company has already committed more than $21 million to the cleanup and to aid East Palestine residents and businesses, and another $7.5 million for nearby communities in Pennsylvania just across the state line from the accident.
“All of this is just a down payment,” Shaw said. “To be clear, there are no strings attached to our assistance.”
The CEO also said Norfolk Southern is “fully cooperating” with the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the accident, which was expanded this week into a review of the company’s overall safety culture in the wake of five recent accidents, including three in Ohio.
While the crew did all it could to prevent the 149-car train derailment on Feb. 3, exposing East Palestine and the surrounding area to plumes of toxic chemicals, “it is clear the safety mechanisms that were in place were not enough,” Shaw said. The NTSB is focused on overheated wheel bearings as a possible cause of the accident.
Committee members and three senators who testified before the panel urged Shaw and the rail industry in general to support a bipartisan bill introduced last week to increase safety standards, including requirements for two-person crews on all freight trains and for improvements to strengthen rail cars carrying hazardous materials, according to a bill summary. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House that would broaden the definition of a “high-hazard flammable train.”
Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance, a sponsor of the Senate bill, said most of his colleagues support legislation, but there are some in his party “who seem to think that any public safety enhancements for the rail industry is a violation of the free market. That is a farce.”
Vance said the industry “enjoys special subsidies, special legal carve-outs” and was “bailed out” by Congress last year when it forced a settlement of a contract dispute with railroad unions.
“You cannot claim special government privileges, you cannot ask the government to bail you out and then resist basic public safety,” Vance said. “We have a choice. Are we for big business and big government or are we for the people of East Palestine?”
Environment and Public Works Chairman Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., asked Shaw if he supported the Senate bill.
“We are committed to the legislative intent to make rail safer,” Shaw responded, without getting into the specifics of the legislation.
The panel’s ranking member, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., was critical of the EPA response to the spill when the community was fearful about the effects of chemical contamination in the air, land and water.
“The public deserved a better level of transparency and much, much sooner,” Capito said. “We need to understand why it took so long for the EPA to get accurate information to the public. With each week passing, the confusion seemed to grow.”
The regional administrator for the EPA, Debra Shore, said the agency was on the scene of the accident within hours and “every day since, EPA has been boots on the ground working in a bipartisan manner across all levels of government to help this community.”
The agency is conducting constant air monitoring at 21 stations, Shore said, and “since the fire was extinguished on Feb. 8, EPA has not detected any volatile organic compounds above levels of health concerns.”
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