AJC Exclusive: Norfolk Southern CEO grapples with fallout of Ohio crash

The head of the Atlanta-based railroad faces significant challenges in the wake of the rail disaster.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw answers questions from AJC reporters Kelly Yamanouchi and Michael Kanell at Norfolk Headquarters in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. 
Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw answers questions from AJC reporters Kelly Yamanouchi and Michael Kanell at Norfolk Headquarters in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

As a massive smoke plume soared into the sky from the controlled burn of a wrecked Norfolk Southern train in early February, even the company’s CEO Alan Shaw was alarmed. And he’s been working for the railroad for more than 28 years.

“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. And I hope I never do again,” said Shaw in an exclusive interview Tuesday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was startling and terrifying and disturbing.”

Shaw was on the ground in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 6 when a unified command of government officials and the Atlanta-based railroad decided to burn toxic vinyl chloride from cars that toppled over three days earlier in the village hugging the Pennsylvania border. It was a fraught decision, as the chemical had built up pressure and was threatening to cause an uncontrolled explosion that could have blasted shrapnel across the town.

By avoiding that catastrophic risk, Shaw called the controlled burn “a success,” noting there were no fatalities and that officials have since declared the air and municipal drinking water as safe.

But the image of the plume spread concerns across the nation. And in East Palestine and the surrounding area, residents are unmoored with fears about protracted heath, environmental and economic effects of the chemical release that might take years to sort out.

“The longer this goes on, more and more questions arise about the long-term health effects of chemical exposure, the testing that is needed for the soil, water and air, and the commitment of those responsible for the cleanup,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, at a Congressional hearing he chaired March 28 on the government response to East Palestine. “For this small community, this isn’t over. It isn’t going away.”

In the two months since the East Palestine derailment, Shaw has gone from being a relatively unknown CEO of a Fortune 500 firm to the face of a company associated with disaster, answering for the railroad’s actions at a CNN Town Hall and during hearings before the U.S. Senate.

Through it all, Shaw’s responses have been consistent. He pledges to do right by East Palestine residents and to help the town recover. Shaw has announced some rail safety improvements, but has been less committal on some proposed bipartisan safety regulations.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

During an interview in his sun-splashed office on the 17th floor of Norfolk Southern’s headquarters in Midtown Atlanta, Shaw sported a Carhartt vest and checked shirt rather than the suit and tie he wore on Capitol Hill. He was more affable than the solemn persona he’s shown in Congressional hearings.

Shaw acknowledged “there is a lot of concern for the environmental remediation, and a lot of concern for what we’re going to do in the long term.”

“We said we’re gonna make it right,” he said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

‘Always a listening session’

Preliminary findings from the National Transportation Safety Board faulted an overheated axle for the crash. In an interview, Shaw described additions of more track side sensors and research to make operations safer.

But Shaw has taken heat from lawmakers for the company’s response and his refusal, to date, to explicitly endorse some rail safety measures under consideration in Congress. Norfolk Southern faces federal investigations and lawsuits by the U.S. Department of Justice, Ohio attorney general, residents and shareholders.

Many near the crash site have reported troubling symptoms. In surveys conducted by the Ohio Department of Health and its federal partners, residents in East Palestine have reported headaches, anxiety, fatigue, coughing and eye irritation. First responders have reported stuffy noses, runny noses, burning noses or throats and hoarseness.

Norfolk Southern has committed more than $28 million for remediation, testing and donations to the community, and its full liability and expense could amount to tens of millions of dollars more. Railroad workers are still on the ground operating a family assistance center, and Norfolk Southern has made a number of other investments to help local governments and residents.

Shaw, who took over as CEO last May, has visited East Palestine multiple times since the derailment on the night of Feb. 3.

“I’ve been in folks’ homes, I’ve eaten lunch with them. I’ve been in the churches,” Shaw said. “It’s always a listening session that is, ‘What can we do to help you recover and thrive?’”

They’re not necessarily comfortable conversations.

“The hardest thing to hear is about the kids, you know, and the uncertainty about the school-aged children,” said Shaw, who has four children and moved his family to Atlanta after Norfolk Southern began moving its headquarters from Norfolk, Virginia in 2019.

East Palestine resident Misti Allison, who spoke at a Congressional hearing where Shaw also testified, said: “My 7-year-old has asked me if he is going to die from living in his own home. What do I tell him?”

“Alan Shaw has repeatedly said that Norfolk Southern will make it right,” she said. “But who determines what is right here?”

Shaw said he asked to meet with Allison to “see what I can do to help.”

“So last time I was up there, I went over to her house for lunch. And we talked about what we could do to the community,” he said.

‘Holds true to his comments’

Inside Norfolk Southern’s headquarters, employees’ computers have “EP Strong” screensavers showing images of East Palestine, and the company coffee shop has a table of merchandise for sale from East Palestine businesses to benefit the town’s public library.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Through these tumultuous weeks, Shaw said he looks to “take the next right step and stay positive.” The advice he says he follows is “to see it through and then you block out the noise.”

Asked by a reporter how he thinks the East Palestine crash will be remembered decades from now, Shaw said that even though the derailment itself did not cause any fatalities, it will be remembered as “really traumatic for the community.”

But Shaw said he wants Norfolk Southern to be known for going “above the norm on the environmental cleanup” and as “an industry leader in advancing safety initiatives.”

Lourenco Goncalves, CEO of steel company Cleveland-Cliffs — one of Norfolk Southern’s largest customers — said Shaw is part of “a new generation of CEOs taking over” the railroads and is “trying to change the business from the inside.”

“So I see this a lot more as a bump in the road and a liability from the past,” Goncalves said.

Yet the glad-handing, face-to-face engagement and the multi-million dollar contributions to East Palestine cannot rewrite the company’s history of fighting safety regulations, critics say.

A series of derailments in recent weeks in Springfield, Ohio; Michigan and Alabama, as well as an accident that killed a conductor in Cleveland last month has further dented the company’s reputation.

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union National President Eddie Hall has pushed Shaw to make good on his promises made to value employees and prioritize safety. His members are still angered by a recent labor agreement that President Joe Biden forced to be enacted that did not guarantee sick leave.

“We still have engineers and conductors forced to choose between going to work sick or facing discipline,” Hall said, adding the union “hopes that Mr. Shaw holds true to his comments.”