Norfolk Southern CEO and President Alan Shaw testified in front of the United States Senate committee on environment and public works on Thursday morning after the train derailment in East Palestine just over a month ago.
Committee Chairman, Senator Tom Carper from Delaware, West Virginia Sen. Shelley Capito and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey Jr. opened up the floor by stating the goal of the hearing, which was to learn about the long-term plan from Norfolk Southern, address the misinformation and gain a better understanding of what the company is doing to protect the health of the residents in East Palestine.
"Just as we witnessed an earlier environmental disaster in Ohio 54 years ago that I've alluded to, a new generation of Americans is now waiting to see how their government responds today and in the days to come," Carper said, referencing infamous Cuyahoga River fire in 1968. "This incident may well prove to be a defining moment in their lives as it was in my own."
Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance were also in attendance. In his opening statement, Brown said Norfolk Southern had a lack of attention to detail, but did have its attention on profits.
"The NTSB is conducting a special investigation into Norfolk Southern and its culture, investigating five significant accidents since December of 2021, including three accidents that resulted in the death of a Norfolk Southern employee," said Brown. "If Norfolk Southern had paid a little more attention to safety and a little less attention to its profits, it cared a little more about the Ohioans along its tracks, and a little less about its executives and shareholders, these accidents would not have been as bad or maybe not have happened at all."
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After opening statements, Shaw read his prepared testimony, beginning by apologizing for the effects of the derailment, reiterating what was said during their first appearance in a town hall meeting held at East Palestine High School.
"I am deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities, and I am determined to make it right," he began.
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Shaw broke his testimony down into four sections:
- Commitment to remediation and monitoring
- Commitment to the community
- Focus on safety
- Commitment to industry action
Commitment to remediation and monitoring
Shaw restated that Norfolk Southern has been meeting with residents, hearing their concerns about the derailment and the continued efforts from the company within the community. The remediation plan of the long-term efforts will be guided by the U.S. EPA's Unilateral Administrative Order.
"We also are working to safely remove affected soil, and our crews have removed more than 2,300 tons [of waste] from the site," Shaw said. "We have removed waste to landfills specifically engineered and permitted to safely handle this type of material. Our work will continue until the job is done."
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He also reiterated that private well and public drinking water monitoring show that "the water is safe to drink." As of Thursday nearly 600 homes have been screened, none of which show results that indicate a health risk from the aftermath of the derailment.
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Commitment to the community
Shaw said Norfolk Southern has begun investing in the community as support for the efforts in East Palestine. He broke down the numbers as follows:
- $3 million in reimbursements and support to the East Palestine Fire Department
- $1 million available to community leaders for donations
- $1 million to support the immediate needs of the community, overseen by a Norfolk Southern "craft railroader," native to East Palestine
- $300,000 to East Palestine City School District to support the overall long-term contingency plan regarding the impacts of the derailment
- $65,000 to East Palestine Youth Sports Association to allow kids to play in leagues for free for the year
- $7.5 million to reimburse Pennsylvania emergency responders
- $450,000 to fund scholarships for seniors at EPHS
"Again, this is a down payment. I am going to see this through. There are no strings attached to our assistance—if residents have a concern, we want them to come talk to us," Shaw said.
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Focus on safety
Shaw said in his remarks that all of the precautionary measures such as sensors for overheating axles, controlling the speed limit and the response from the Norfolk Southern crew aboard the train worked as planned.
"But the safety mechanisms in place did not prevent this accident, so we are focused on learning from this incident and working with industry to make changes," he said.
He also mentioned that the company spends $1 billion a year on technology, equipment and infrastructure to enhance safety measures.
RELATED: NTSB launches special investigation into Norfolk Southern organization, safety culture
NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy stated publicly that the derailment happened in the 23rd car, with a focus on the failure of the wheel bearing. The car carried plastic pellets, and the combination of the pellets and a hot axle appears to have caused the fire.
"Neither Norfolk Southern nor the other Class I railroads own plastic-pellet hopper cars," Shaw said. "That’s one reason why an industry-wide comprehensive approach, including railcar owners, car manufacturers, leasing companies, equipment makers, and the railroad companies, is essential to help improve safety," Homendy said.
As a first step in the effort to ensure safety, Norfolk Southern is taking the following steps immediately:
- Enhancing the hot bearing detector network
- Piloting next-generation hot bearing detectors
- Deploying more acoustic bearing detectors
- Accelerating its Digital Train Inspection program
- Analyzing with others in the industry available data for patterns that could provide earlier warnings of potential safety issues
Commitment to industry action
Shaw said that all seven Class 1 railroads announced they would be joining the Federal Railroad Administration's Class Call Reporting System. He also stated that Norfolk Southern was "already actively participating" in the C3RS working group.
"We believe it is important that we leverage Norfolk Southern’s data, as well as data from industry partners, to reevaluate alarm threshold temperatures for bearing heat sensors," he said.
EPA officials give statements
After Shaw finished his statements, others close to the situation added their comments. Director of the Ohio EPA, Ann Vogel, and EPA Regional Administrator Deborah Shaw were also on the stand in front of the committee on Thursday morning.
Deborah Shaw stated the agency has had boots on the ground since the day of the derailment. Both leaders restated the number of homes tested privately, the continuous monitoring of levels and the scientific data to ensure the region is safe.
However, she acknowledged the power the EPA has to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for their actions.
"Most importantly, if the company fails to complete any of the EPA-ordered actions, the agency will immediately step in, conduct the necessary work, and then force Norfolk Southern to pay triple the cost," Shaw said. "EPA's order holds Norfolk Southern accountable and facilitates in the transition from the multi-agency emergency response phase to a longer-term cleanup phase."
Vance and Brown did not have the opportunity to question Shaw on the stand, as neither sits on the committee.
After hours of back-and-forth conversations between government officials, Senators left the session seemingly satisfied, said Scripps News reporter Nathaniel Reed.
"Somebody needed to apologize," Carper said. "That was appreciated. I asked him a lot of 'yes no' questions but didn't get a lot of 'yes no' answers. We're gonna give them a chance, in the days ahead, to answer those questions."
In the coming days, Shaw will be able to respond to officials' questions on the record with written responses.
Vance and Brown introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023, something Vance pointed towards during his opening statements.
"Now we are faced with a choice, with this legislation and how we respond to this crisis," he said. "Do we do the bidding of a massive industry that is embedded with big government? Or do we do the bidding for the people who elected us into the Senate and Congress in the first place?"
Questions still hang in the air, as Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy must decide whether or not the bill will be presented on the floor.
The test of time will determine the strength of the response from Norfolk Southern and supporting government agencies.
To watch the entire testimony, click the player below:
CLICK HERE to read more of News 5's extensive coverage of the East Palestine train derailment.
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