Amid a push for more stringent rail safety regulations in the wake of the toxic derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw will respond to the proposed tightening of safety measures in Congressional testimony on Wednesday.
Shaw is set to testify before the U.S. Senate commerce committee, the second time he has been called to answer questions from a Congressional committee in the last two weeks.
In his written testimony released in advance of the hearing, Shaw again apologizes for the impact of the derailment, which disrupted the lives of area residents and caused fears about long-term health impact of the chemicals released from hazardous materials cars that burned.
“I’ve met with community leaders, business owners, school officials, clergy, and others to begin to identify ways we can invest in the future prosperity of the residents in the area and support the long-term needs of its people,” Shaw says.
The hearing is expected to have remarks by Ohio’s U.S. senators, Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, both harsh critics of Norfolk Southern, who have introduced rail safety legislation. Also expected to speak are Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and a resident from East Palestine, Misti Allison.
The proposed Senate legislation would increase inspection requirements for rail cars carrying hazardous materials and increase fines for safety violations. Shaw said he supports reviews of regulations for rail car inspections, and increased fines and penalties for people who tamper with rail facilities and safety equipment. Rail safety legislation has also been introduced in the House.
“There are also areas in which we believe Congress could go further with safety legislation,” Shaw’s prepared testimony continues. “We encourage even stricter standards for tank car design. There are significant opportunities for advanced technology to enhance rail safety, and we encourage Congress to consider additional research into on-board rail car defect detection technology.”
DeWine, along with Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, on Tuesday wrote a letter to Shaw calling on him to fully support the legislative efforts and to work with lawmakers “to ensure the best possible policy outcomes in these proposals.” In addition to bills in Congress, there are also proposals in the Ohio Legislature.
Shaw says his company is “committed to learning from this accident and working with public officials and industry to make railroads even safer.”
But Norfolk Southern and the rail industry have come under fire for lobbying against certain rail safety regulations over the years, and Shaw has not made a full-throated endorsement of rail safety legislation currently in Congress.
Bipartisan rail safety legislation introduced in the Senate, which is also supported by President Joe Biden, would require two-person rail crews and establish rules for train size and weight, among other measures. The train that derailed in East Palestine had two crew members and a trainee, and had 149 cars. Shaw does not voice support in his testimony for new requirements for crew size or train size.
In addition to Shaw, other witnesses expected to testify are National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy, Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District Chief David Comstock, Ohio State SMART-TD legislative director Clyde Whitaker and Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies.
While Norfolk Southern and government officials say ongoing environmental monitoring at the derailment site shows air and drinking water are safe, many area residents have questions about the safety of drinking water and the impact of the derailment on home values over time. Shaw pledged to work on programs to protect drinking water over the long term, and to protect people who sell their homes and lose property value due to the derailment.
Shaw’s prepared remarks say he supports additional funding in the legislation for first-responders. On other aspects of the legislation, Shaw said he supports “the principle” that first responders need to know about what’s on the trains moving through their communities — such as hazardous materials — but says “the details of legislation matter as policymakers balance safety enhancements with national security concerns.”
He voiced a similar view of supporting “in principle” measures to improve standards for safety sensors and maintenance, but said “we welcome construction discussion with stakeholders to craft effective and practical legislation.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com