Senators grilling Norfolk Southern’s chief executive at a Thursday hearing was part of their wider effort to gauge rail industry’s willingness to be subject to new safety regulations.
The hearing’s main purpose was to look at the actions of those responding to the Feb. 3 derailment of a NS train in East Palestine, Ohio, according to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. In addition to NS President and CEO Alan Shaw serving as a witness, representatives from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission and Beaver County Emergency Services also testified at the hearing.
But the inquiry also provided an opportunity for senators to prod Shaw into defining his and the rail industry’ stance on issues such as precision scheduled railroading (PSR), the deployment of electronic pneumatic brakes, the new rail safety bill introduced by a bipartisan group of five senators and providing sick leave to the rail labor unions.
“I recognize that we’re always going to have accidents, but I think we’re going to make them less likely, and I think, importantly, we can give our first responders proper notice when they’re responding to these derailments,” said Republican Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, who testified as a witness.
Vance is also part of the Senate group that introduced the bill on March 1 that calls for a number of rail safety initiatives, including establishing requirements for wayside defect detectors, compelling railroads to notify state emergency responders when trains carrying hazardous materials are passing through their states, increasing penalties for violating regulations and mandating train crews of at least two or more workers, among other items,
“I worry that there has been a movement in my party … that would not hold Norfolk Southern or the rail industry accountable,” said Vance, arguing the rail industry has been enjoying special subsidies and legal carve-outs. “This bill is not returning to the days of rate setting. The 1980s airline and rail deregulation I think in a lot of ways was good for consumers and good for the industry, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have reasonable public safety enhancements in response to what happened in East Palestine.”
Other senators also justified the implementation of additional rail safety regulations, saying they could help prevent potential future derailments.
“It’s absolutely critical we examine the impacts to health and public well-being of the people of East Palestine. …,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., chair of the subcommittee on chemical issues. “This tragedy demands accountability because future derailments will happen unless we learn the lessons of this instance. There will undoubtedly be more derailments — derailments with devastating impacts on additional communities.”
Merkley referred to a June 2016 derailment of a train in Mosier, Oregon, carrying crude oil that he said scarred local residents and initially caused some environmental damage. Despite working with fellow Oregon senator and Democrat Ron Wyden to call for track improvements and other measures that could bolster rail safety, “progress was very limited,” Merkley said.
“There’s so much that can be done to limit the odds of disasters happening,” Merkley said. “And that’s our responsibility.”
In response to the senators’ concerns, Shaw reiterated throughout the hearing that he was “deeply sorry” for the derailment and stressed that NS would continue collaborating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the monitoring of air and water quality.
“It is clear the safety mechanisms in place were not enough,” said Shaw. “… The events of the last month are not who we are as a company.”
Shaw also said he supported some of the provisions in the rail safety bill but stopped short of wholeheartedly backing it as it stands.
“We are committed to the legislative intent to make rail safer,” said Shaw, adding that NS invested $1 billion in rail safety initiatives in 2022. Provisions of the bill he and the broader rail industry could support include tighter tank car standards, more training and funding for first responders and more enhanced wayside detector technology.
When asked by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., whether Shaw would disavow PSR, a tool the Class I railroads deployed to streamline operations, Shaw referred to the themes expressed during NS’ investor day in December.
“[NS] charted a new course in the industry, and I said we’re going to move away from a near-term focus solely on profit and we’re going to take a longer-term view that’s founded in our engagement with our craft employees, who are so critical to our success,” Shaw said.
Although some senators remarked on the bipartisan spirit of the rail safety bill several times during the hearing, party lines were still apparent. Republican senators grilled Debra Shore, Region 5 administrator for the EPA, over the agency’s responses to the train derailment, including the timing of the decision to test the area for dioxins and its actions on where to dispose of contaminated soil. Democratic senators questioned NS’ actions involving billions of dollars in stock buybacks in recent years.
In response to the hearing, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade group whose members could also feel the impact of additional safety regulations, noted the role that shippers also have in creating safe conditions for rail transport.
“Rail safety is a shared responsibility,” ACC President and CEO Chris Jahn said in a Thursday news release. “Safety initiatives and regulations must address the entire safety equation, which includes preventing derailments, avoiding releases and supporting emergency response. Shippers and rail carriers, along with the federal government, have made steady progress on rail safety by working together and there is more we can accomplish. We continue to learn new details about the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation with more to come.
“ACC wants to work with policymakers and our transportation partners to apply the lessons from the East Palestine derailment, so the products of our industry can be delivered without incident.”