Disasters & Accidents

Railroad CEO appears at Senate hearing on Ohio derailment

Washington, Mar 9 (EFE).- The head of the rail company whose train carrying toxic chemicals derailed last month in East Palestine, Ohio, apologized for the accident Thursday in an appearance before a committee of the United States Senate.

“I want to begin today by expressing how deeply sorry I am for the impact this derailment had on the residents of East Palestine and the surrounding communities,” Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw told the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.

“I am determined to make this right,” he said. “Norfolk Southern will clean the site safely, thoroughly and with urgency. You have my personal commitment. Norfolk Southern will get the job done and help East Palestine thrive.”

In the wake of the mishap, senators from both parties have put forward a bill, the Railway Safety Act of 2023, aimed at reducing accidents on the rail network, which sees around 1,000 derailments a year on average.

Several of the senators at Thursday’s hearing, including Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Bob Casey from neighboring Pennsylvania, urged Shaw to endorse the measure.

But the Norfolk Southern CEO would say only that he supports “the legislative intent to make railroads safer.”

He also insisted that the company has a good record on safety, even though the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently announced a special investigation into the safety culture at Norfolk Southern.

Shaw likewise declined to declare a moratorium on stock buybacks pending completion of changes to improve safety.

“Will you pledge to no more stock buybacks until a raft of safety measures have been completed to reduce the risk of derailments and crashes in the future,” Oregon Democrat Sen. Jeff Merkley asked.

“I will commit to continuing to invest in safety,” Shaw said.

The CEO has said in the past that Norfolk Southern invests more than $1 billion a year in safety, yet the company has spent $12.8 billion on stock repurchases in the last four years and plans to buy back another $7.5 billion in shares.

On Feb. 3, 50 cars of a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, a town of some 5,000 people near the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line.

Several of the cars were carrying highly combustible materials, including vinyl chloride (a known carcinogen), and roughly 1,500 residents were evacuated amid fears of an explosion.

To avert a blast, authorities decided on a controlled burn of the chemicals, generating a towering toxic plume of smoke.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state officials and Norfolk Southern told the people of East Palestine it was safe to return to their homes after the controlled burn ended on Feb. 8, but residents have complained of rashes, burning eyes and respiratory problems.

Last week, a temporary dam holding back water removed from the accident scene gave way and parts of East Palestine were flooded, reviving fears of contamination.

The Senate panel also heard Thursday from EPA regional administrator Debra Shore, who said that the agency will ensure Norfolk Southern meets its responsibilities to the people of East Palestine.

“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,” she told senators.

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