Polluters Full Of Promises & Apologies
Apologies Are Not Enough. Find Out What Happened At The U.S. Senate Hearing On The Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing on the East Palestine train derailment to discuss the environmental disaster.
You can watch the entire 3-hour hearing below or check out C-SPAN’s coverage here.
If you want the cliff notes, here are the highlights.
In general, there were plenty of apologies for the fiasco, but we all know actions speak louder than words. Residents in East Palestine and surrounding areas continue to report health issues and concerns. Many questions remain. Medical guidance has been sparse.
In his opening remarks, Chairman Thomas R. Carper, a senator from Delaware, vowed “to hold Norfolk Southern’s feet to the fire to make sure this community is made whole.”
Carper and U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito from West Virginia and the committee’s ranking minority member, both said they were concerned with a lack of communication from Norfolk Southern in the days shortly after the Feb. 3 derailment.
Those who is testified included:
Alan Shaw, president and CEO, Norfolk Southern Corporation
Debra Shore, regional administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region V
Anne Vogel, director, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency
Richard Harrison, executive director and chief engineer, Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO)
Eric Brewer, director and chief of hazardous materials response, Beaver County Department of Emergency Services
You know who wasn’t invited to testify? Anyone from the community.
It would have been great to give community members or business owners an opportunity to speak about their experiences so that legislators can hear the real impact from real people.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw began with an apology:
“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 also detailed a number of financial commitments to help the community impacted including a direct investment of more than $21 million, which he referred to several times as a “down payment.” And he also shared that the company has committed $7.5 million to Pennsylvania for a community relief fund.
Those numbers pale in comparison to profits. Sen. Jeffrey Merkley from Oregon stated that Norfolk Southern did $3.1 billion of stock buybacks in 2021, $3.4 billion last year and had $7.5 billion available for additional buybacks in December.
When questioned on whether Norfolk Southern would halt stock buybacks until an array of safety measures are finished, Shaw responded that the company will “continue to invest in safety.”
“You’re coming in here with three derailments in three months and the average in the industry is one per month,” Merkley said. “Congratulations on maybe some good luck over a few years, but at this moment your team is the team that has had the most derailments in the last three months.”
Shaw also made assurances that, “We will be in the community for as long as it takes” and that the company is “committed to do what’s right.”
But as questions came at him, he dodged saying “yes” or “no” to specifics, sticking to his talking points rather than making any commitments outside of vague promises.
In particular, he wouldn’t discuss plans to help with any long-term medical costs, including medical testing or economic damages.
Sen. Ed Markey from Massachusetts asked Shaw directly if he would commit to providing families compensation for decreased property values as a result of the crash.
“What's right is a family that had a home worth $100,000 that is now worth $50,000 will probably never be able to sell that home for $100,000 again. Will you compensate that family for that loss?”
“I'm committed to what's right, if…” Shaw said again.
Markey interrupted, saying, “That is the right thing to do. These are the people who are innocent victims, Mr. Shaw. These people were just there at home and all of a sudden, their small businesses, their homes are forever going to have been diminished in value. Norfolk Southern owes these people. It’s an accident that is basically under the responsibility of Norfolk Southern, not these families.”
He also declined to commit to supporting the proposed bipartisan Railway Safety Act.
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.
The National Transportation Safety Board released a statement this week sharing how the board is launching a special investigation into the company, noting that it had sent officials to investigate at least five different significant incidents involving the company since 2021.
On the same day of his testimony, another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Calhoun County, Alabama, though none of the train cars were carrying hazardous materials.
Bottom line: It’s the job of our elected officials to ensure that the impacted communities receive the resources and support they need. While some good questions were asked, we need those in power to continue to hold Norfolk Southern responsible for its actions. We need more specifics not empty promises.
Did you watch the Senate hearing? What questions would you have asked? Let us know in the comments below.