WASHINGTON — Democratic Senators along with Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) grilled Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on Thursday after the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, as well as two other derailments in recent weeks, for the industry’s lack of investment in safety measures.
During the Senate Environment and Public Works hearing both Ohio Sens. Vance and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) urged their colleagues to set partisan barriers aside and support passage of their Railway Safety Act of 2023 to require a number of safety improvements to prevent disastrous derailments.
Vance, who has struggled to receive support for the bill from all members of his party, called on specific Republicans to stop defending corporations in the train industry and be “the party of the people.”
He said he’s concerned that some within the party think that any public safety enhancements for the rail industry impedes on free market ideals. Vance said the rail industry is the beneficiary of government bailouts and benefits unlike any other industry.
“You cannot claim special government privileges, you cannot ask the government to bail you out and then resist basic public safety,” Vance said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine was a disaster waiting to happen as the industry has not been held accountable for years.
He, along with Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pointed to the company’s history of lobbying against safety measures and cutting maintenance positions while simultaneously paying billions to shareholders.
Chairman Thomas Carper (D-Del.) asked Shaw if he will commit financially to East Palestine long term and implement new safety measures, to which Shaw repeatedly responded he is “committed to doing what is right.”
For Carper, the response fell short. He noted that he will be disappointed if Shaw and other rail companies don’t go forward with enacting safety measures like those laid out in the Raid Safety Act.
“If a lot of the concepts in that legislation are not embraced by him and other leaders in the industry, that’s what I will be disappointed in,” Carper said.
Ranking member Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), among other Republicans, focused their questioning on the Environmental Protection Agency’s response to the disaster.
Capito said the EPA fell short in its response with the chemical release, saying residents don’t trust the federal government’s testing results. Capito said the EPA was not transparent or clear with residents.
“We need to understand why it took so long for the EPA to get accurate data to the public,” Capito said.
Capito brought up concerns about chemical waste not being removed from East Palestine. There are piles of the dirt that have been there for weeks, according to Vance who brought up the issue during his testimony.
EPA regional administrator Debra Shore assured Capito the process of chemical waste removal is being performed up to EPA standards, but Senators were still concerned about where the waste is going, which Shore was not able to clearly answer.