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Senators scrutinize communication lapses in toxic Ohio train disaster

Hearing reveals partisan divisions over Ohio derailment, with some blaming EPA, others blaming corporate greed

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testified during the March 9 Senate committee hearing on the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Norfolk Southern’s communication failures left emergency responders scrambling to prepare for a massive plume of toxic chemicals after a train operated by the company derailed and threatened to cause an explosion in East Palestine, Ohio, some witnesses and lawmakers told Congress on Thursday.

Pressed by senators at a three-hour hearing on the Feb. 3 derailment, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan H. Shaw apologized for the disaster but stopped short of guaranteeing certain specific cleanup and safety measures, such as paid sick days for his employees or funding for East Palestine residents’ possible medical expenses. He endorsed some parts — but not all — of a rail safety bill Ohio’s senators have proposed.

Whether bipartisan support for such legislation would materialize in the Senate and House remained unclear after Thursday’s hearing of the Senate Environment Committee, which also yielded few new answers for Ohio and Pennsylvania residents affected by the disaster, with regulators repeating assurances they’ve given for weeks.

Some East Palestine residents who traveled to Washington for the hearing were dissatisfied with Shaw’s answers, saying the CEO didn’t offer enough specifics.

“I’m tired at this point of the political jargon of ‘We’re going to do what’s right,’” said Erin Stauffer, 44, who lives about a mile and half from the derailment site. “Tell me what that means.”

An emergency management director described the tumultuous period after Norfolk Southern told officials that a rail car was heating up and might explode, a potentially deadly scenario that required the evacuation of residents. It had already been two days since the derailment, which caused a massive fire as rail cars leaked toxic chemicals.

Officials were confused and misled by the railway’s lack of communication as they tried to determine whether to allow Norfolk Southern to do a “controlled release” of toxic vinyl chloride to prevent the explosion, said Eric Brewer, director of emergency services in Beaver County, Pa., which neighbors East Palestine.

Norfolk Southern personnel did not come to officials’ meetings — and decision-makers were stunned to learn partway through their planning that the company wanted to release chemicals from five tank cars, not one, Brewer recounted.

“This changed the entire plan,” Brewer told the Senate panel. He later added: “The decision to go from the one tank car to the five was jaw-dropping.”

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said the first responders were left trying to respond to the prospect of a much larger plume of chemicals. Emergency responders also reportedly had difficulty figuring out what chemicals the rail cars were carrying. “I was expecting to be informed of exactly what was on the train and the potential health hazards,” said Dan Frederick, a police officer and one of many first responders on the scene, according to Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.). “To say I was scared … is an understatement.”

The release from the five cars spewed a toxic plume over the area, causing images of the wreck and toxic plume to go viral and leaving residents with fears of long-term environmental and health effects. No one was killed in the accident, which federal investigators say was caused by an overheated wheel bearing.

Scrutiny of Norfolk Southern’s safety record has intensified since, as have calls for Congress to strengthen railroad and chemical regulations. Meanwhile, conservatives have faulted the Environmental Protection Agency for its communication with the public in the wake of the disaster.

“You can’t address fear and mistrust by pointing residents to an EPA website filled with fact sheets and press releases,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the committee’s ranking Republican.

Members of Congress zeroed in on the consequential decision to release the vinyl chloride, as well as other aspects of the derailment response by the rail company and federal, state and local regulators. Though members of both parties pressed the railroad CEO and environmental regulators, Democrats largely went after Norfolk Southern while Republicans blamed the Biden administration, illustrating the partisan divide riven by the disaster that has echoed the country’s broader cultural battles.

“It’s our responsibility in Congress to answer: One, what went wrong? Two, what do we need to do to fix it? What do we need to do to make sure it never happens again?” said Carper, who chairs the Senate Environment Committee.

Eric Brewer, director of emergency services in Beaver County, Pa., said Norfolk Southern had a “lack of communication” during the Feb. 3 train derailment. (Video: The Washington Post)

Asked about the EPA’s ability to hold companies accountable, EPA regional administrator Debra Shore said the agency has taken similar actions “effectively” in the past and would be “vigorous” about enforcement with Norfolk Southern.

In front of lawmakers, Shaw reiterated pledges to clean up the mess, offering his “personal commitment” that the company would remain dedicated to long-term recovery efforts in East Palestine. He pointed to $21 million he said Norfolk Southern has spent on community support in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“We’re going to be there today, tomorrow, a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now,” Shaw said of East Palestine.

Shaw refrained from committing to pausing stock buybacks, compensating East Palestine residents for losses in home values and supporting all parts of the proposed rail safety bill — all things members of Congress pressed him on throughout the hearing.

He endorsed legislative provisions on improved trackside safety detectors and first-responder training but did not mention a proposed requirement that trains have at least two crew members. He said Norfolk Southern was “committed to the legislative intent to make rail safer.”

Even as Shaw promised lawmakers that Norfolk Southern “runs a safe railroad,” news that another one of its trains had gone off the tracks in Alabama spread partway through the hearing. That followed another Norfolk Southern derailment in Ohio this month.

“You may need to look into that,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told Shaw.

A train wreck and a soaring plume of smoke that has divided a town in Ohio

This week, the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration launched reviews of the railway’s safety record, pointing to a half-dozen serious incidents since December 2021, including three that left workers dead. Norfolk Southern lobbied against federal railroad regulations in the years before the derailment.

While Norfolk Southern initially pledged to clean up the mess voluntarily, the EPA is now formally overseeing the cleanup, requiring the company to submit plans for approval and threatening with fines for anything it skips over.

Though the EPA has been involved since the derailment occurred, it waited for weeks to use its legal authority to take over and require Norfolk Southern to clean up the site. The derailment became a political flash point, with Republicans seizing on it to criticize the Biden administration for not sending top officials to East Palestine sooner and social media users spreading misinformation and baseless accusations. The White House, which experts have said mounted a typical response, has defended the administration’s work.

Those dynamics were on display at the hearing, with Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) baselessly alleging that the people of East Palestine are “a little too rural, maybe a little too White” to elicit a quick response from the Biden administration. Democrats, in turn, pursued Norfolk Southern with allegations of corporate greed: “Complacency breeds disaster,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) told Shaw.

During the March 9 hearing on the Ohio train derailment, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) took issue with opponents of new rail safety rules. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

But Vance, who was elected in November on a hard-right platform, also voiced frustration with Republicans who haven’t supported the proposed rail safety bill, saying some in the GOP seem “to think that any public safety enhancements for the rail industry is somehow a violation of the free market.” That stance puts him at odds with Republicans who have typically resisted government restrictions on businesses.

“Do we do the bidding of a massive industry that is in bed with big government,” he said, “or do we do the bidding of the people who elected us to the Senate and to the Congress in the first place?”

Lawmakers also grilled Shaw about Norfolk Southern’s profits, lobbying, workplace reduction and other issues. Under questioning by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Shaw would not guarantee paid sick leave for all of the railroad’s workers, a top goal for unions.

Sanders tied the question of sick time to an industry strategy called “precision scheduled railroading,” which critics say has put more focus on financial success at the expense of safety and workers who he said are “now being asked to do more work with fewer workers, and that includes safety inspection.”

Shaw said the railroad was on a “hiring spree” under his tenure, adding 1,500 employees, and would “move away” from a “focus solely on profits.”

Sanders and others cast the derailment as an industry run amok.

If Norfolk Southern had paid a little more attention to safety and a little less attention to its profits … these accidents would not have been as bad or maybe not happened at all,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on March 9 pushed Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on guaranteeing paid sick leave for all the railroad’s workers. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Cleanup of the derailment site, where contracted crews this week were excavating soil under the train tracks, is ongoing. More than 3 million gallons of contaminated water and 2,650 tons of solid waste had been taken out as of Tuesday, according to the Ohio governor’s office, all transported to waste-disposal facilities in Ohio and other states.

Other issues also arose in the derailment response: Michigan officials were not notified before Norfolk Southern moved toxic waste from East Palestine to a Michigan facility, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said. Federal investigators found a gap in the company’s network of detectors; Shaw told lawmakers the railroad had already installed a new detector designed to catch overheating wheel bearings near East Palestine.

Capito questioned why the EPA had not started testing for dioxins, a persistent and hazardous class of pollutants, before last week. In response, Shore said only “very low levels” were found in some excavated waste that had been tested.

And regulators remain unable to answer some of the questions residents have.

“How long will we test the water? How long until the fish come back? Can I play in the yard and eat out of my garden? How or when will we know if the damage to our village is worse than we thought or even irreparable?” Ohio Environmental Protection Agency head Anne Vogel said. “These are legitimate questions, and I am committed to finding answers.”

Train derailment makes odd bedfellows of J.D. Vance, Sherrod Brown

Shaw is set to return to the Senate later this month. A spokeswoman for the Senate Commerce Committee said Thursday that he is scheduled to testify March 22 alongside Jennifer Homendy, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the East Palestine derailment and reviewing Norfolk Southern’s safety practices.

“I am determined to make this right,” Shaw said Thursday. “Norfolk Southern will clean the site safely, thoroughly and with urgency.”

Misti Allison, a 34-year-old East Palestine resident who attended the hearing, was unimpressed. She pointed to Shaw’s response that he was “committed to doing what’s right” when asked by Carper whether the railroad would cover potential long-term medical costs for residents.

“He couldn’t answer that,” said Allison, a mother of two who said she attended the hearing to show that real people’s lives are affected. “He said, ‘I’m just going to do the right thing.’”