Bipartisan Push for Increasing Safety Regulation at the Recent Senate Hearing on Ohio Train Derailment

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing on March 9 on the recent derailment of railcars carrying hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio. Two panels of witnesses testified for the hearing, including Senators of two states that were impacted by the incident (OH and PA), the CEO of Norfolk Southern (NS), EPA regional and state representatives, Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), and Beaver County Department of Emergency Services. You can read their full testimonies here.

Chairman Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) clarified that the purpose of the hearing was to understand what went wrong, outline the steps that need to be taken for addressing the damage, and identify actions needed to prevent such incidents in the future.

There was a bipartisan push from Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Sen J .D. Vance (R-OH) for passing their Railway Safety Act, which is supposed to increase the safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials (and significantly increase the penalties for violating those requirements).

Sen. Vance specifically stressed upon the fact that the railroad industry has long received special subsidies and legal carve outs from the federal government and that the industry can’t claim those privileges and resist basic safety measures. He also urged Republicans to think if theirs is a political party that is for big businesses or for the people of East Palestine.

Alan Shaw, the President and CEO of NS, highlighted a range of measures that his company is taking to address the immediate and long-term impacts of the derailment. “We will clean the site safely, thoroughly, and with urgency,” he said, adding that the company has announced investments worth $21 million and provided support to over 4400 families through the Family Assistance Center. He also committed to ensuring right training, processes, equipment, and technologies to prevent future incidents.

To chairman Carper’s question on whether Shaw would support the Railway Safety Act, he said that they are committed to legislative intent to make rail safer. Shaw also said that NS supports tighter tank car standards, more training and funding for first responders, and enhanced wayside detection technologies.

The members of the committee also commented on the lack of transparency and communication from the EPA and Norfolk Southern, which led to misinformation and mistrust among people. Specifically, Eric Brewer, who led emergency response efforts in Beaver County, claimed that the decision of NS to burn five tankers instead of one tanker was “jaw-dropping” and not communicated early on.

Sen. Capito questioned EPA about why it is stopping contaminated waste trucks to be transported out of the disaster site to facilities in Michigan and Texas, which are equipped to handle such waste. EPA responded by stating that the waste is moving to facilities which are EPA-approved, have the capacity to handle the waste, and have contracts with Norfolk Southern. Debra Shore and Anne Vogel highlighted the efforts being taken by the EPA, in partnership with the local agencies, to conduct air monitoring and water sampling to detect any contaminants. Ms. Shore also said that the EPA issued a Unilateral Administrative Order to Norfolk Southern to identify and clean contaminated resources at its own cost. The order also states that in case Norfolk Southern fails to conduct the needed actions, the EPA will step in to complete the task and charge Norfolk Southern triple the cost.

Some members of the committee called attention to the practice of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) in the industry, which has led to longer trains, a reduced workforce, and increased profits to the railroads. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked if Shaw intends to end PSR and introduce at least seven paid sick days to all his employees. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) spoke about the $650 million federal spending and $60 million state spending by the railroad industry in lobbying against safety regulations. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked if Shaw can pledge to not do any stock buybacks until a raft of safety measures have been completed to reduce the risk of derailments in the future.

In response to these questions, Shaw maintained that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) indicated the derailment was not caused by the Norfolk Southern Crew and that the hotbox detectors were working fine. He also stressed that the company has invested over $1 billion annually on safety improvements and he is committed to continue speaking about quality-of-life issues for his workers.

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