Sen. Bernie Sanders presses Norfolk Southern CEO in tense exchange and other takeaways from Ohio train derailment hearing
A powerful Senate panel held a hearing Thursday on the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle call for answers and action in the wake of the disaster.
The hearing is taking place after the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train on February 3 that released toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil of East Palestine. The Senate Environment and Public Works committee is hearing from witnesses, including Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw. Here are key takeaways from the hearing:
Shaw began his testimony with an apology to the individuals and communities hurt by the derailment and said that Norfolk Southern will work to help East Palestine recover.
“I want to begin today by expressing how deeply sorry I am for the impact this derailment has had on the residents of East Palestine and the surrounding communities,” he said. “I am determined to make this right. 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.”
Shaw outlined a number of financial commitments as part of that effort. “In terms of community support, we have announced direct investments of over $21 million,” he said, adding, “We committed $7.5 million to Pennsylvania for a community relief fund.” The derailment occurred near the state line between Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“All of this is just a down payment,” he said. “We will be in the community for as long as it takes.”
The hearing featured several senators as witnesses: Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat. They spoke about what they are hearing from constituents in communities affected by fallout from the incident and talked about what they hope to see happen going forward.
Brown said that during visits to East Palestine he has talked to residents and, “heard their fears for what this means for their town and fears for the future.”
“Now these Ohioans are worried about whether their water is safe to drink, the air is safe to breathe, whether their kids will get sick, whether their crops are contaminated, whether they’ll still be able to do business and attract investment to the community,” he said.
Casey, who noted the derailment “occurred just literally feet away from the Pennsylvania border,” said he has heard from farmers who are very concerned. “They want help from the Department of Agriculture. They want certainty that their crops and their livestock are safe and free from contamination and that the food supply and their livelihoods are safe,” he said.
Vance said in his testimony, “I think the most important message to the people of East Palestine is that we will not forget about them in the months and years to come, and I think this committee hearing reinforces that message.”
In the wake of the East Palestine crash, a bipartisan group of senators has proposed a new bill aimed at shoring up rail safety. The Railway Safety Act of 2023 has been introduced by Vance and other Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri, as well as Brown, Casey and fellow Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.
In his testimony, Casey said he hoped to hear Norfolk Southern say they support the bill.
“It would be a good start by Norfolk Southern to tell us today, in addition to what more they’re going to do for the people of Ohio and Pennsylvania, tell us today that they support the bill,” Casey said.
“We have a lot of work to do in the near term, but the future has to be about passing the Railway Safety Act,” he said.
Later in the hearing, Shaw was asked if he would commit to supporting the bipartisan bill. Shaw wouldn’t endorse all of the provisions of the bill, but he said, “we are committed to the legislative intent to make rail safer.”
The bill includes a number of provisions to boost safety procedures to prevent future incidents, including “new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride,” a requirement for advance notice from railways to state emergency response officials about what their trains are carrying, requirements to prevent blocked railway crossings and new rules for train size and weight, according to a statement from the senators.
Shaw said there are “a number of provisions that we would absolutely support,” including tighter railroad tank car standards. Other policies Shaw said Norfolk Southern supports include “training and more funding for first responders.”
Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders pressed Shaw on health care needs in East Palestine, asking if his vow to help the community following the train derailment will include paying for health care costs for residents.
Shaw did not make a definitive commitment, but said that “everything is on the table.”
“You talked about covering the needs of the people of East Palestine – does that include paying for their health care needs – all of their health care needs?” Sanders asked.
“We are going to do what’s right,” Shaw replied.
“What’s right is to cover their health care needs. Will you do that?” Sanders responded.
“Everything is on the table, sir,” Shaw said in response.
Sanders also pressed Shaw on the issue of paid sick leave for employees in a tense back-and-forth exchange.
“You provided paid sick days to some of your employees,” Sanders said, “will you make that commitment right now to guarantee paid sick days to all of your workers?”
“I share your focus on our employees. I will commit to continuing to discuss with them important quality-of-life issues,” Shaw said in response.
Sanders replied, “With all due respect you sound like a politician here, Mr. Shaw.”
“I am not hearing that commitment. Will you make that commitment?” the senator asked again.
“I am committed to continuing to speak to employees about quality-of-life issues that are important to them,” Shaw said, echoing his earlier answer.
This story has been updated with additional developments.