Village residents wait in the streets for the arrival of former U.S. President Donald Trump in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 22. A Norfolk Southern train derailed in the village spilling hazardous chemicals on February 3. Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/UPI | License Photo
March 9 (UPI) -- Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw apologized Thursday during a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for the February train derailment of toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, in the face of strong criticism from legislators.
His comments came on the same day another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Alabama.
Shaw, who has led the freight rail company for less than a year, said he has traveled to the southeastern Ohio community numerous times since the Feb. 3 accident to understand what needs to be done in the derailment's aftermath that has left some in the community afraid to return home and drink their well water.
"They've shared their stories and their concerns and the health of their families and the future of the community they love," Shaw said in his opening statement. "I am determined to make this right. Norfolk Southern will clean the site safely, thoroughly and with urgency. You have my personal commitment."
Shaw faced down a Senate committee skeptical of Norfolk Southern's actions immediately after the derailment. His testimony to Congress came on the same day that another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Alabama, scattering 30 cars.
"Norfolk Southern will get the job done and help East Palestine thrive," Shaw said. "At the direction of, and in collaboration with, the U.S. EPA, state and local agencies, we are developing and implementing near and longer-term cleanup activities.
"Air and water monitoring have been in place continuously since the accident. To date, it consistently indicated that the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink. We have announced direct investments of over $21 million. We have provided support to over 4,400 families."
Before Shaw's statements, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who took the witness chair, blamed Norfolk Southern's business culture of enriching its bosses and shareholders while cutting costs elsewhere. He said it was that culture that left communities like East Palestine vulnerable to such derailment.
"In 10 years, Norfolk Southern eliminated 38% of its workforce," Brown said, pointing out that the company then paid out billions in stock buybacks.
"They're planning on doing even more this year. That's money that could have gone to hiring inspectors, putting more hotbox detectors along its rail lines, to having more workers available to repair cars and repair tracks," he said.
Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, criticized the Biden administration as slow to respond to the emergency, suggesting politics had more to do with the delay than Norfolk Southern.
"I just want to say I think our leadership, our media and our politicians were slow to respond to this crisis, in part because a certain segment of our leadership feels like the people of East Palestine are a little out of style. They have their own politics. They're a little too rural, maybe a little too White," he said.
"The most important message to the people of East Palestine is that we won't forget about them in the months and years to come. This committee hearing reinforces that message."
Vance accused the EPA of holding up the removal of toxic dirt dug up by Norfolk Southern as part of its cleanup, which remains on site. He also chided some fellow Republicans for pushing against a bipartisan bill he has worked on with Brown on rail safety regulation.
Vance and Brown urged their colleagues to set partisan barriers aside and support passage of their Railway Safety Act of 2023 to require a number of safety improvements to prevent disastrous derailments.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said the derailment in East Palestine was a disaster waiting to happen as the industry has not been held accountable for years.
He, along with Sens. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., pointed to the company's history of lobbying against safety measures and cutting maintenance positions while simultaneously paying billions to shareholders.
Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said that while Norfolk Southern has agreed to pay for the environmental cleanup, "the ultimate cost may exceed the immediate cleanup needs."
He also complained about the initial lack of transparency by the rail company that sparked concerns and left people in the community grasping for answers.
Carper said, for example, Norfolk Southern's initial information to first responders about the number of cars that derailed forced them to delay in getting the sufficient resources they needed at the scene.
Ranking member Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., echoed Carper's sentiments about transparency, saying emergency personnel and the community needed information from Norfolk Southern "much sooner." Capito laid some of the criticism on the Biden administration, saying the EPA's risk strategy "fell short."
"We need to know why it took so long for the EPA to get accurate data to the public," Capito said. "This is especially true when organizations like the Ohio EPA and the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission ... managed to provide data and safety information to the public quicker."
She said the absence of information was filled by social media and conspiracy theorists that caused confusion and allowed disinformation to grow in the days after the accident.
EPA regional administrator Debra Shore assured Capito the process of chemical waste removal is being performed to EPA standards, but senators were still concerned about where the waste is going, which Shore was not able to clearly answer.
The Senate hearing comes as the Biden administration is putting increased pressure on Norfolk Southern to clean up the spill.
Air-quality testing has been one of the primary measures of environmental toxicity in the region and will remain after the EPA ordered the company to continue probing dioxin levels around the crash site and compare those samples to ones taken in areas not impacted by the derailment.
Dioxins, according to the EPA, are persistent pollutants that are highly toxic and can cause cancer, and other major physiological issues.
Soil was being excavated from the site to be treated and disposed of, officials said.
Earlier this week, the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the safety practices at Norfolk Southern, which operates in 22 Eastern states.
Norfolk Southern must meet several legally binding requirements in the coming weeks and months to avoid federal fines and penalties.
The company has said it would comply with the government's directive and this week released a checklist of new safety measures, including the installation of more heat detectors on the tracks -- which might have prevented the derailment in East Palestine.
The federal order to clean up the mess was issued the same day that Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro called on his state attorney general to bring criminal charges against Norfolk Southern for potential failures that led to the disaster, while Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said his administration was considering a similar move.
On Monday, Shapiro announced that he secured a commitment from Norfolk Southern to pay $7.38 million to the state to cover any costs related to the cleanup.
The company also faces several class-action lawsuits stemming from the derailment and controlled burn of vinyl chloride that sent a large plume of black smoke billowing into the atmosphere on Feb. 6.
Returning home five days after the spill, East Palestine residents became increasingly nervous as many began to experience symptoms like burning eyes, labored breathing, headaches, nausea and irritated skin.
Despite continued assurances from officials about the safety of the air and water, many remain deeply concerned that pets, crops and livestock had been exposed in the disaster's immediate aftermath.
On Thursday, a Norfolk Southern train traveling from Atlanta to Mississippi, derailed in Alabama.
There were no reports of injuries or hazardous leaks after approximately 30 cars derailed, the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency said in a news release, according to NBC News.
"Norfolk Southern has responded and is working closely with us," an agency spokesperson said in a statement. "Norfolk Southern has their cleanup crew on site and there is no estimation on how long it will take."
Connor Spielmaker, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern, said the train was mostly mixed freight and that two of the cars had previously carried hazardous materials, most likely a solution used in water treatment. At the time of the derailment, those two cars were empty.