‘I’m terribly sorry,’ Norfolk Southern CEO tells senators

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said he is “terribly sorry” for his company’s toxic derailment disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, in testimony Thursday before a U.S. Senate committee, while lawmakers called out the company for its safety practices and its lack of transparency after the wreck.

Senators also raised growing concerns about a string of Norfolk Southern derailments in the weeks since since the Feb. 3 crash, including a derailment in Alabama on Thursday morning, just hours before the hearing.

Shaw faced tough questioning from the Committee on Environment and Public Works about the Atlanta-based railroad’s actions and response to the East Palestine derailment. More than three dozen railcars jumped the tracks, including 11 carrying hazardous materials, which released toxic chemicals into the air, soil and water and left residents fearful and uncertain about the long-term impact.

“We’re going to be there for as long as it takes to help East Palestine thrive and recover,” Shaw said.

The Ohio crash has captured national attention and triggered a bipartisan effort to reform rail safety, while putting Norfolk Southern, a company not accustomed to being in the spotlight, under intense scrutiny.

The company now faces lawsuits, a special investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board into its broader safety practices and an order by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean up hazardous materials from the site or pay triple damages.

“Your company will pay for the harm that it has caused,” committee ranking member Sen. Shelley Capito, R-West Virginia, told Shaw.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) during a Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works hearing on the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 9, 2023. In his prepared remarks released ahead of the hearing, Norfolk Southern Chief Executive Alan Shaw said he is “determined to make it right” for the people of East Palestine, Ohio, after a train derailed there last month. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

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Capito said EPA’s communications about risks to the public also “fell short.”

“The public deserved a better level of transparency and much, much sooner,” she said.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, the committee chairman, criticized Norfolk Southern’s lack of transparency early in the response.

Shaw laid out the steps the railroad is taking to remedy the situation, and said the company has signed a lease for a more permanent presence in East Palestine.

Widespread impact

The East Palestine derailment is also reverberating in Atlanta. The Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America and students from Georgia Tech’s Young Democratic Socialists of America plan a rally at Norfolk Southern’s Midtown headquarters on Saturday in support of rail workers and East Palestine residents.

Anne Vogel, director of Ohio’s state EPA, testified that she hears questions from East Palestine residents every day.

“Can I play in the yard and eat out of my garden? How or when will we know if the damage to our village is worse than we thought or even irreparable?” Vogel said.

She said state representatives “will not stop until the science definitively shows that the residents of East Palestine are safe in their community.”

Also speaking at the hearing were Ohio’s two U.S. senators, Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican. Both are harsh critics of Norfolk Southern who have proposed a bill to tighten rail safety regulations.

From right: Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) appear before the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 9, 2023. In his prepared remarks released ahead of the hearing, Norfolk Southern Chief Executive Alan Shaw said he is “determined to make it right” for the people of East Palestine, Ohio, after a train derailed there last month. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

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The legislation would improve safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, establish requirements for defect detectors, require two-person crews and increase fines for wrongdoing.

Shaw fell short of endorsing the rail safety bill. He instead made vague statements on the company’s plan to improve safety.

“We are committed to legislative intent to make rail safer,” Shaw said. “Norfolk Southern runs a safe railroad and it’s my commitment to improve that safety.”

Railroads have long had a significant amount of independence in how they operate, and have lobbied against certain safety regulations.

Vance raised concerns about the positions of some of his fellow Republicans — “a particular slice of people who seem to think that any public safety enhancements for the rail industry is somehow a violation of the free market.”

“This is an industry that enjoys special legal carve-outs that almost no industry enjoys,” he said. “We have a choice: Are we for big business and big government, or are we for the people of East Palestine?”

Georgia’s two Democratic senators have also weighed in on the legislation.

Sen. Raphael Warnock issued a statement supporting the Bipartisan Railway Safety Act and said he is open to exploring additional regulatory options.

Sen. Jon Ossoff said in a statement that rail safety laws and regulations “warrant constant scrutiny and review in the interests of public safety and public health, and there are several bipartisan proposals worthy of consideration.”

The NTSB cited the East Palestine derailment and four other significant accidents involving Norfolk Southern since December 2021 — include a separate Ohio derailment on Saturday and a conductor killed on the job in Cleveland on Tuesday — triggering its probe of the company’s safety practices.

Senators pushed the company to hire more workers, put in better braking systems on railcars to prevent derailments, and add more sick leave for employees.

Shaw said the company has been on a hiring spree and invests $1 billion a year on safety enhancements.

Senators also urged Norfolk Southern to pay for East Palestine residents’ health care costs and lost property values. And they hammered Shaw about millions spent by the company on lobbying and stock buybacks.

“Will you commit to ensuring that these families, these innocent families, do not lose their life savings in their homes and small businesses?” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, asked. Shaw responded: “I’m committed to doing what’s right for the community.”

Thursday’s hearing also revealed details of miscommunication between the railroad and public officials after the East Palestine derailment. Norfolk Southern opted to burn five railcars of vinyl chloride instead of one at risk of exploding — expanding the toxic burn that created a soaring plume of black smoke.

Ever since that smoke filled the air in East Palestine, distrust has fueled some of the concerns residents have about their health. Officials say the air and municipal water are safe.

“Since the fire was extinguished on February 8, EPA monitors have not detected any volatile organic compounds above levels of health concerns,” Shore said. “We also recognize that the people of East Palestine still question the health and safety of their community and their loved ones.”