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Sunday, May 19, 2024
Gov & Politics

Partisan split on rail safety shows at first hearing on Ohio derailment

Partisan rifts emerged Thursday during the first congressional hearing on the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio — with Democrats grilling Norfolk Southern’s CEO for his railroad’s role in the disaster, while Republicans pilloried the Biden administration for its communications with residents during and after the accident.

Though senators from both parties expressed concern about aspects of the derailment and the response from both Norfolk Southern and the Environmental Protection Agency, the partisan difference in focus suggests that nascent efforts to pass a bipartisan rail safety bill may be difficult.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, assigned blame squarely on the railroad for East Palestine residents’ continued questions and suspicions about the extent of the toxic disaster. The “apparent lack of transparency on the part of Norfolk Southern, at least in the early days of the response, has left some members of the community battling with mistrust and looking for answers,” he said.

Republicans, meanwhile, decried what they suggested was a lack of transparent communication from the EPA, which has met skepticism for its assurances that the community’s air and water are safe.

“A month after the accident, it’s clear to me that EPA’s risk communication strategy fell short,” said top committee Republican Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “The initial delays in messaging and response has meant that the residents still do not trust these results enough to feel safe.”

Republicans highlighted that first responders arriving on the scene didn’t immediately know what chemicals they were dealing with. In addition, residents still don’t believe EPA assurances that the air and water are safe because it still doesn’t smell right, Capito said. And, Republicans suggested that the EPA hasn’t provided direct answers on where the soil removed from the site is being shipped.

Capito grilled Debra Shore, EPA’s regional administrator, about how it is handling waste removal at the accident site, echoing complaints from Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance that large amounts of contaminated soil remain. When the soil is disturbed, “it brings the odor and then here comes a lack of trust right back down onto the community,” Capito said.

Shore reported that tests of the contaminated soil revealed only low levels of dioxins, which will allow the waste to be transported to facilities qualified for disposal as soon as Thursday.

Democrats also sought to pin down Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw about whether his company will support a bipartisan rail bill that Vance is offering with senators including Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown
and Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey.

“It’s bipartisan — that never happens around here on the big bills,” said Casey. “It’d be a good start by Norfolk Southern to tell us today — in addition to what they’re going to do for the people of Ohio and Pennsylvania — tell us today that they support the bill. That would help, if a major rail company said: ‘We support these reforms, and we’ll help you pass this bill.’”

Shaw did not directly answer the question. But later in the hearing, Shaw praised provisions included in the bill that intend to tighten tank car standards and increase training for first responders. He also mentioned his desire to improve the devices on tracks that detect overheating wheels, which investigators are eyeing as a factor in the derailment.

Other Democrats, including Brown and Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, criticized Norfolk Southern for what they characterized as focusing more on profits than rail and chemical safety.

“Norfolk Southern chose to invest much of its massive profits in making its executives and shareholders wealthy at the expense of Ohio communities along its rail tracks,” Brown said. He noted that in the last decade, Norfolk Southern eliminated 38 percent of its workforce.

Sanders tried to get Shaw to commit to providing paid sick leave for its workers — one of the changes the Biden administration is seeking. Shaw demurred.

At various points senators also sought to pin Shaw down on specific actions the railroad would take to make residents whole, including compensating people for long term medical costs and economic damages. Shaw responded to that and other attempts to pin him down on specifics with: “We’re committed to doing what’s right for the folks in East Palestine.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders answered: “What’s right is to cover their health care needs. Will you do that?”

Shaw only replied that “everything is on the table.”

“All of us are committed to doing what’s right,” Sanders shot back. “But the devil is in the details.”

Opening the hearing, Shaw apologized for the derailment and pledged “to improve safety immediately.”

“I want to begin today by expressing how deeply sorry I am for the impact this has had on the residents of East Palestine and the surrounding communities,” Shaw said. “I am determined to make this right.”

He said that while federal investigators have preliminarily found that the three-person crew behind the controls “was operating the train below the speed limit and in an approved manner,” it is still “clear the safety mechanisms in place were not enough.”

Norfolk Southern has announced safety changes in the wake of the accident that are tailored to addressing the likely cause — an overheating wheel on a car carrying plastic pellets, which then caught fire. The railroad industry as a whole has also made new safety promises, though they are also tailored to the specific likely cause of the accident.

Still, Shaw acknowledged that those voluntary initiatives “are just the start.”

“The events of the last month are not who we are as a company,” Shaw said, referring not just to the East Palestine derailment but at least two other incidents since then, including one this week that resulted in the death of a conductor.

Alex Guillén contributed to this report.

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