Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw refused to endorse bipartisan rail safety legislation Thursday in his first congressional testimony since last month’s toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
During the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing, Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., asked Shaw if he would support the Railway Safety Act.
“We are committed to the legislative intent to make rail safer,” Shaw said. When asked if there were provisions he did support, Shaw cited tighter standards on tanker cars, more funding for first responders and an increase in the number of railside detectors that monitor trains.
Carper was relaying a question from Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., who did not appear at the hearing as he continues treatment for clinical depression.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, introduced the Railway Safety Act last week with co-sponsors from both parties. The bipartisan bill would establish new safety measures for railroads, including setting nationwide requirements for devices “designed to automatically detect wheel bearing and other mechanical issues” as well as require railroads to create disaster plans and inform emergency response commissions of any hazardous materials going through their states.
It also increases fines for safety violations, and aims to address questions arising in the aftermath of the East Palestine incident, such as why Ohio wasn’t informed of the train’s hazardous cargo.
Early in the hearing, Vance called on his Republican colleagues to side with the people of East Palestine over the rail company. Prior to Shaw’s testimony, Brown said he was seeking a promise to support the bill.
“If this company is serious in its commitment to preventing more East Palestines in Ohio and across the country,” Brown said, “I hope today Mr. Shaw will endorse our common-sense bipartisan plan. Sen. Vance and I come from different parties, different philosophies, but on this we’ve come together for the people of our state, and I appreciate his work on this.”
In an exchange with Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Shaw said his company had already made major investments in safety: “Our safety stats, senator, continue to improve, and I am committed to making Norfolk Southern safety culture the best in the industry.”
“You’re not having a good month,” replied Markey. “It seems like every week there’s another accident that Norfolk Southern is a part of in our country.”
Hours before the hearing began, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Alabama, with authorities saying there were no injuries and no hazardous materials present. On Saturday, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Springfield, Ohio, in at least the fifth derailment the company has had in the state since October.
The company has seen an increase in both profits and accidents in recent years, as it runs longer and heavier trains while cutting its workforce; Politico reported Wednesday that Norfolk Southern had the biggest increase in its accident rate over the last decade among major freight carriers. ABC News reported Thursday that federal regulators were looking into a complaint alleging that Norfolk Southern ignored an incident last month regarding one of the company’s trains carrying hazardous materials in North Carolina.
In advance of the hearing, Norfolk Southern on Monday announced a six-point safety plan meant to address overheated bearings, which the National Transportation Safety Board said was the likely cause of the Feb. 3 derailment.
Carper concluded the hearing by observing that Shaw had given few direct answers during questioning.
“I’m not a big fan, Mr. Shaw, of ‘yes’ [or] ‘no’ answers. That’s not usually my style,” Carper said. “But I didn’t think we heard as many unequivocal ‘yesses’ as I might like to have, and we might want to revisit that at another time.”
Earlier during the hearing, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders accused Shaw of sounding “like a politician” after Shaw refused to guarantee “at least seven paid sick days” to all of his employees, some of whom Sanders said currently have no paid sick leave — underscoring the exhaustion of a depleted workforce that employees have been describing in the aftermath of the disaster. Last week, a union official accused Norfolk Southern of endangering workers who were doing the cleanup.
“Paid sick days is not a radical concept in the year 2023. I am not hearing you make that commitment to guarantee that to all of your workers,” Sanders said after asking for a yes or no response.
“I’m committed to continuing to speak to our employees about quality of life issues that are important to them,” Shaw replied.
Sanders also pressed Shaw about covering the health care needs of residents affected by the train derailment. Residents have already reported a host of symptoms in the days and weeks after the disaster, including painful and difficult breathing, fatigue and rashes.
“You talked about covering the needs of the people of East Palestine,” Sanders said. “Does that include paying for their health care needs? All of their health care needs?”
“Everything is on the table, sir,” Shaw responded.
Shaw was also pushed on the company’s previous lobbying against safety measures. “Since 2002, the rail industry has spent more than $650 million on federal lobbying, with another $60 million spent on state lobbying,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said, adding that Norfolk Southern was the fifth-biggest spender among rail companies. The company said it had “opposed additional speed limitations and requiring [upgraded electronic] brakes” in a 2015 lobbying disclosure.
Norfolk Southern says it has provided more than $21 million to East Palestine in the weeks since the crash. (The company had initially pledged $25,000 to support “the efforts of the American Red Cross and their temporary community shelters” and offered affected residents $1,000 “inconvenience fees.”) In 2021 and 2022, the company spent billions on stock buybacks and had announced intentions to spend billions more.
Scrutiny over the company came after one of its trains derailed minutes from the Ohio-Pennsylvania border on the evening of Feb. 3, with the governors of both states issuing a joint evacuation order for a roughly one-mile radius, since 11 of the cars contained hazardous materials.
On Feb. 6, Norfolk Southern burned off five tankers full of vinyl chloride in what it said was an effort to avoid a catastrophic explosion, but it resulted in images of a giant toxic smoke plume that quickly circulated on social media. Two days later, residents were urged to return home, despite a lingering smell in the air and reports of such symptoms as dizziness, headaches and rashes.