WASHINGTON D.C. (WKBN) – Norfolk CEO Alan Shaw testified at a hearing Thursday held by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on East Palestine’s train derailment.
He began with an apology.
“I am deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities, and I am determined to make it right,” Shaw said.
He talked bout the remediation at the site and that all water and air samples show that the air and water are safe. He also spoke about Norfolk’s financial commitment to the community and the $20 million investment there so far.
“I want to be clear. This financial assistance is just a down payment. I’ve met with community leaders, business owners, school officials, clergy, and others to begin to identify ways we can invest in the future prosperity of East Palestine and support the long-term needs of its people,” Shaw said. “There are no strings attached to our assistance.”
Shaw said that while the NTSB is conducting its investigation, his company is working to implement new safety measures.
“We currently spend $1 billion a year on technologies, equipment, and infrastructure to enhance safety. But the safety mechanisms in place did not prevent this accident, so we are focused on learning from this incident and working with industry to make changes,” Shaw said.
Some immediate improvements include:
- Enhancing the hot bearing detector network;
- Piloting next-generation hot bearing detectors;
- Deploying more acoustic bearing detectors;
- Accelerating our Digital Train Inspection program; and
- Analyzing—with others in the industry—available data for patterns that could provide
earlier warnings of potential safety issues, and partnering with other railroads to review
best practices, including how the industry should respond to high-temperature alarms.
The hearing first focused on communication in the initial hours of the derailment. Both Ohio EPA Director Anne Vogel and Beaver County EMA director Eric Brewer said it was lacking but improved.
“There were quite a few gaps of communication in the early hours of the derailment and those gaps have been addressed. But yes, things could have been handled better in the beginning hours,” Vogel said.
Sen. Capito asked U.S. EPA Regional Director Debra Shore why waste continues to pile up in East Palestine and why shipments were suspended for a time. And why it took so long to start testing for dioxins.
“Waste is moving off-site as recently as yesterday to a number of facilities that are EPA approved and that have the capacity to receive the waste. Once federal EPA issued the order and assumed authority, we did pause for a compliance review. It’s EPA’s responsibility to make sure they are compliant with our regulations,” Shore said.
Shore explained that they did not immediately test for dioxins because preliminary testing did not indicate that dioxins were being created.
“We listened to the community, and we are sampling soil for dioxins,” Shore said. “The (first) results for dioxin testing came in at a very low level.”
When asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, if Shaw thought East Palestine was safe and if he would live there, Shaw said he would. Vogel and Shore also agreed that the area is safe.
Questions were raised about whether the decision to vent the car carrying vinyl chloride was necessary. Sen. Markwyane Mullin, R-OK, asked if the owner of the railcar, who is responsible for its safety and operation, was consulted about the decision to vent, saying that the tanker was built to handle a derailment such as the one in East Palestine.
“The experts on the ground were very concerned about the pressure and the other cars that were in a pool fire,” Shaw explained.
Shaw answered that the private owner of the tanker “was not in the room” when the decision was made to burn off the chemical. Mullin suggested that maybe the decision to vent the tanker was a mistake.
Senator Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, asked Shaw about Norfolk’s $30 billion in profits and pressed him about paid time off and health care needs of workers.
“I share your focus on our employees. I will commit to discussing with them the quality of life issues that are important to them,” Shaw said.
In answering a question from Graham, about personnel issues or the workers’ actions on the train, Shaw said that had nothing to do with the derailment, according to initial reports.
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., condemned Shaw for his company’s workforce reduction and said that Norfolk traded safety for money.
“What I am hearing from you is great confidence in your system. But confidence breeds complacency and complacency leads to disaster,” Markey said. “You reduced your workforce by one-third in 10 years. With that reduction is a reduction of a level of safety that is built in to avoid these kinds of tragedies.”
Shaw said since he took over 10 months ago, that the railroad has been on a hiring spree and he is committed to putting his workforce as a top priority.
Markey also asked Shaw if he would go out of what he calls the “arbitrary one-mile radius” of the derailment to help those who will suffer impacts from the derailment, including a reduction in property value.
“We already are,” Shaw said. “I am committed to doing what is right, long-term.”
In wrapping up the hearing, Committee Chairman Senator Tom Carper stressed lessons that will be learned from the derailment but also wanted to hear about what went right.
“The relationship we had with other responders was positive. Initially, we had good communication with boots on the ground. The training collaborative is something positive that will come out of this,” Brewer said.
Shore said the collaboration between local, state and federal agencies was remarkable but expected.
“What has been remarkable but should be standard is the way local state and fed agencies have worked together and it has not been about politics. You see Democrats standing with Republicans. Collaboration focused on getting this cleaned up has been quite remarkable,” she said.
Shaw was the last to answer and reiterated his commitment to the village.
“The coordination and collaboration from the folks at this table. I made a personal commitment that we are going to do everything it takes. I generally have an affection for the people of East Palestine. There are yard signs saying ‘Welcome to America’s Greatest Comeback Story,’ I want to make sure that happens.”