On the same day Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw assured a U.S. Senate panel the company will clean up the mess from its train derailment in Ohio last month, a trade group issued a national advisory about potentially loose wheels on rail cars, and another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Alabama.
Shaw testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works over one month after a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials went off the tracks in East Palestine. An initial report from the National Transportation Safety Board found the train derailed after the crew was alerted to an overheated wheel bearing.
“Norfolk Southern will clean the site safely, thoroughly and with urgency,” Shaw told senators. “You have my personal commitment: Norfolk Southern will get the job done and help East Palestine thrive.”
But Shaw faced pointed questions from the panel about the company’s response and whether they’ll support efforts to increase rail safety in the wake of the incident.
Within hours of the testimony, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Alabama and a national railroad trade group urged U.S. railroads to take certain cars out of service after Norfolk Southern found loose wheels on its car involved in a second derailment in Ohio last week.
Here’s what we know:
‘The right thing’
The first Norfolk Southern derailment spilled toxic chemicals into the environment, but state and federal officials say the air and village water system are now safe. Still, residents remain worried about their community and have reported headaches, rashes and other health issues.
Throughout the hearing, Shaw touted Norfolk Southern’s efforts to assist East Palestine and address those concerns.
The company has so far spent $21 million and established a community liaison to communicate problems to Shaw’s office. It’s also working with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to create a regional training center for first responders in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to help them safely respond to rail emergencies.
But Shaw was only willing to make so many commitments. He declined to say whether Norfolk Southern would compensate residents for long-term medical needs ordecreased property values. Instead, he repeatedly said the railroad would do “what’s right” and broadly suggested everything is on the table.
“The right thing to do is say, ‘Yes, we will,'” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said.
Ohio, Pennsylvania officials address communication issues
Testimony from Ohio and Pennsylvania officials highlighted communication gaps that hindered the initial response to the derailment.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., cited a letter from Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro that criticized Norfolk Southern’s handling of the incident, particularly a lack of communication with emergency responders. Shapiro said the railroad failed to convey its intention to release and burn all five cars containing vinyl chloride, instead of just one.
Company officials have said the controlled release was necessary to prevent a far more catastrophic explosion. But Eric Brewer of the Beaver County Department of Emergency Services in Pennsylvania said Norfolk Southern’s sudden change of plans caused confusion among everyone involved.
“The decision to go from the one tank car to the five was jaw-dropping just because of the impact it had,” Brewer said.
Aside from the company, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, expressed concern that the EPA didn’t provide enough answers to people in the immediate aftermath. She said news releases and online fact sheets don’t go far enough to convey data to residents about the safety of their air and water.
“The initial delays in messaging and response has meant that the residents still do not trust the results enough to feel safe, and trust is essential in these situations,” Capito said.
Will Norfolk Southern support rail safety bill?
Ohio’s U.S. Sens.//, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican J.D. Vance spoke at Thursday’s hearing about bipartisan legislation they introduced that would strengthen oversight of trains carrying hazardous materials and increase penalties for railroads that break the rules.
Shaw said Norfolk Southern supports “legislative intent to make rail safer” and applauded some parts of the bill, including better standards for tank cars. But the measure also includes a requirement that at least two crew members staff rail operations, something Norfolk Southern previously lobbied against.
It’s also unclear whether Vance will be able to generate enough Republican support for the legislation. He expressed frustration with some members of his party who are skeptical of piling more regulations onto the railroad industry.
“Do we do the bidding of a massive industry that is in bed with big government, or do we do the bidding of the people who elected us to the Senate and to the Congress in the first place?” Vance said. “I believe we are the party of working people, but it’s time to be the party of working people.”
Brown noted that the East Palestine derailment isn’t Norfolk Southern’s only trouble.
Nearly 30 cars on one of its freight trains derailed near Springfield over the weekend, although that train was not carrying any hazardous materials. Days later, a Norfolk Southern worker died after being struck at a railroad crossing near a Cleveland steel plant.
Right before Thursday’s hearing kicked off, another Norfolk Southern train went off the tracks in Alabama.
What’s going on?:Trains keep derailing all over the country. Here’s what we know.
Norfolk Southern officials say there’s no public threat with Alabama derailment
The 37-train car derailment in Calhoun County, Alabama had no hazardous materials on board, Norfolk Southern Spokesman Connor Spielmaker said Thursday.
Two of the cars were considered “residue” cars because they previously contained hazardous materials but they were not jeopardized, he added.
“There is no hazardous material leak,” Spielmaker said at a news conference in Oxford, Alabama on Thursday. “There is no risk at all to the public.”
It could take several days to remove the rail cars as the cause of the accident is under investigation, he said.
No injuries or road blockages occurred, said Myles Chamblee, director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.
Railroads remove rail cars after Norfolk Southern finds ‘loose wheels’
Also on Thursday, Norfolk Southern said found loose wheels on a series of rail cars involved in a derailment on March 5 near Springfield, Ohio – the second in the state in five weeks.
In a statement, Norfolk Southern said after it discovered “additional cases of unusual wheel movement,” it let accident investigators and the rest of the railroad industry know.
“Although the investigation into the cause of the accident is still underway, we immediately notified the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration and began inspecting other cars from this series on our network,” Norfolk Southern said. “We issued orders to remove these cars from service until their wheelsets could be replaced, and we have taken steps to remove this specific model and series from service until they can be fully inspected.”
In response, the Association of American Railroads trade group issued an advisory urging to take certain cars out of service after the second derailment.
The trade group said the problem was linked to new wheelsets that were installed on specialized steel coil cars beginning in August. The association said all of the cars with those wheels should be inspected and have their wheels replaced immediately.
Railroads nationwide initially identified 675 cars affected by the advisory and pulled them off the tracks, Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek told the Associated Press.
Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau. Contributing: Associated Press.