Railroad chief apologizes for toxic train crash at US Senate hearing | transport News

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The CEO of Norfolk Southern Railway has apologized before the United States Congress and pledged millions of dollars to help the town of East Palestine, Ohio, recover from the stoppage of a train carrying hazardous materials on the last month.

But Alan Shaw stopped short of supporting tougher safety regulations or special commitments to pay for long-term health and economic damage.

In a Senate hearing Thursday, Shaw said his railroad strongly supports the goal of improving rail safety, but he also defended his company’s record.

He was closely questioned by both Democrats and Republicans about special promises to pay for long-term health and economic damage – and about the decisions that led to the release and burning of toxic vinyl chloride from five tanker cars – in addition to the company. commitment to the safety and assistance of residents.

“I’m very sorry for the impact this delay has had on the people of that community,” Shaw told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “We’re going to be there as long as it takes to Helping East Palestine to thrive and recover.”

But the sympathy and commitment of $20 million in aid so far hardly satisfied lawmakers or the numerous East Palestinian residents who traveled to Washington, DC, for the hearing.

“How do we trust that man with our health and the health of our children, when he won’t even answer the questions we need to answer,” said Jami Cozza, adding that her family is still suffering from illnesses more than a month later. the separation.

The company has announced several voluntary safety improvements. Senators, however, have pledged an urgent investigation into the railroad, the response of President Joe Biden’s administration, and the company’s safety practices after the derailment of 38 rail cars, including 11 carrying hazardous materials.

Federal regulators have also said Norfolk Southern itself needs to do more to improve safety.

No one was injured in the accident, but state and local officials determined that toxic vinyl chloride would be released and burned from five tanker cars, prompting the evacuation of half of Palestine’s approximately 5,000 residents. East.

Sightings of smoke over the city, along with concerns from residents that they are still suffering from illnesses, have turned high-level attention to rail safety and the handling of dangerous goods.

Democratic Senator Tom Carper, the committee’s chairman, opened Thursday’s hearing by saying it was “an opportunity to put ourselves in the shoes of those affected by this disaster, examine the immediate response and ensure long-term accountability for the clean-up efforts”.

Carper joined the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Shelley Capito of West Virginia, in a call with reporters Wednesday to emphasize that they would work in a bipartisan manner “to deliver accountability to the communities and people affected”.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testified before Congress
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testifies before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on March 9, 2023 [Kevin Wolf/AP Photo]

Proposal of the Senate

The East Palestine disaster as well as a series of other recent train derailments have prompted a bipartisan showdown in the Senate.

The committee also heard Thursday from Ohio and Pennsylvania senators — Republican JD Vance and Democrats Sherrod Brown and Bob Casey — who are pushing new safety regulations called the Railroad Safety Act of 2023.

“It shouldn’t stop a train for elected officials to put aside partisanship and work together for the people we serve — not corporations like Norfolk Southern,” Brown of Ohio said in prepared remarks. “Rail lobbyists spent years fighting every effort to strengthen regulations to make our trains and rail lines safer. Now Ohioans are paying the price.”

Railroads have been getting less common but there were still more than 1,000 last year, according to data collected by the Federal Railroad Administration. Even one rail line with hazardous materials can be catastrophic.

Noting that a train derailed in her home state of West Virginia on Wednesday, Capito cast the hearing as the first of several Senate steps on rail safety and the response. crisis

Hazardous materials shipments account for 7 to 8 percent of the approximately 30 million railroad shipments across the US each year. But railways often mix loads and almost any train may have a car or two of dangerous goods.

The trade group Association of American Railroads says 99.9 percent of hazardous materials shipments reach their destinations safely and that railroads are generally considered the safest option for transporting hazardous chemicals by land. .

But lawmakers want to make railroads safer.

The Railroad Safety Act of 2023, which has the support of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, would require the installation of more detectors to monitor wheel bearing temperatures more frequently, ensuring that highways notifying states of the hazardous materials they transport, and funding hazmat training for first responders.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the House of Representatives have been skeptical about passing new regulations on railroads. GOP senators discussed the bill at their weekly lunch on Tuesday, but Republican Senator Mike Rounds said most would prefer the bill be resolved in committee.

Vance, an Ohio senator who won last November’s election, challenged fellow Republicans to kill his bill, saying they are avoiding a move in the GOP to appeal to blue collar voters.

“We have a choice: Are we for big business and big government, or are we for the people of East Palestine?” he said.

Federal investigations

Norfolk Southern is also under pressure from federal regulators. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Railroad Administration both announced investigations this week into the company’s safety culture. The NTSB said its investigators will investigate five major accidents involving Norfolk Southern since December 2021.

The company has said it is implementing immediate safety upgrades, including adding “approximately 200 hot-conduction detectors” to its network. The NTSB has said that a detective alerted the crew working on the train that derailed on February 3 outside East Palestine, but they were unable to stop the train before debris arrived. three dozen cars off the tracks and set on fire.

The Senate bill also touches on disagreements between railroad labor unions and operators by requiring train crews to continue with two.

The unions claim that railways are at risk due to job cuts in the industry over the past six years. Nearly a third of rail jobs have been axed and train crews, they say, are dealing with fatigue as they are on call day and night.

Shaw said Norfolk Southern has gone on a “hiring spree” in the past year but has not supported other proposed changes, including a requirement to keep two-man crews on highways. iron goods.

Republicans, meanwhile, are more willing to join the emergency response to the East Palestinian standoff. Thursday’s Senate hearing featured environmental protection officials from the federal, state and local levels.

Shaw and state and federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials, who have been overseeing the cleanup, said they would be comfortable living in East Palestine today because air testing and water all shows that it is safe.

Republicans have repeatedly criticized Biden for not visiting the community after the railroad. The Democratic president has said he will visit at some point, although transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg went to East Palestine last month and has stressed more safety protocols for trains.

Several East Palestine residents made their way to Washington, D.C. for Thursday’s hearing, including Misti Allison, who has joined a group called Moms Clean Air Force.

Allison and other residents are concerned about possible long-term effects even if tests do not show dangerous levels of toxins.

“Everyone here wants him to be well. We want that to be true so badly. Everyone loves this community and no one wants to leave,” Allison said. “But if not, we need to know that.”

The smell of chemicals can still be smelled in East Palestine at times, she said, adding: “Congress needs to be held accountable for Norfolk Southern and the polluters and these companies that run these train bombs through neighborhoods like the one of ours.”

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