With the area under threat of a potentially deadly explosion, Norfolk Southern personnel did not come to officials’ meetings — and decisionmakers learned partway through their planning that the company “wanted to” release chemicals from five tank cars, not one, said Eric Brewer, director of emergency services in Beaver County, Pa., which neighbors East Palestine.
“This changed the entire plan,” Brewer said. He later added: “The decision to go from the one tank car to the five was jaw-dropping.”
The release from the five cars spewed a toxic plume over the area, vaulting the train derailment into the national eye and leaving residents with fears of long-term environmental and health effects.
That consequential decision was one of several aspects of the derailment response by the rail company and federal, state and local regulators that members of Congress zeroed in on Thursday at the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing. Regulators reiterated assurances that the local air and water are clear and that all involved agencies will supervise the long-haul recovery.
The questioning unfolded along predictable partisan lines, as Democrats went after Norfolk Southern and Republicans blamed the Biden administration — though in one party-bucking moment, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) chided a “particular slice” of the GOP for not supporting senators’ bipartisan bill to advance rail safety regulations.
In front of lawmakers, Shaw, the head of Norfolk Southern, reiterated pledges to clean up the mess, offering his “personal commitment” that the company would remain committed to long-term recovery efforts in East Palestine.
“We’re going to be there today, tomorrow, a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now,” Shaw said. “I’ve told the community that. I’ve been there in person. I’ve looked into their eyes. I’ve heard their concerns.”
But even as Shaw promised lawmakers that Norfolk Southern “runs a safe railroad,” another one of its trains went off the tracks in Alabama partway through the hearing. That followed another Norfolk Southern derailment in Ohio earlier this month.
“You may need to look into that,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told Shaw.
The early February train derailment and chemical release sent toxins into the environment, upended the lives of East Palestine residents and captured the nation’s attention. No one was killed in the accident and officials say drinking water tests so far are clear, but the disaster has left residents in fear of potential long-term health effects, worrying about the future and the odd health symptoms they experienced after returning from evacuation.
The derailment became a political flashpoint, with Republicans seizing on it to criticize the Biden administration for not sending top officials to the site sooner and social media users spreading misinformation and conspiracies. The White House, which experts have said mounted a by-the-book response, has defended the administration’s work in East Palestine. Though the EPA has been involved since the derailment occurred, it did not use its legal authority to take over and require Norfolk Southern to clean up until weeks after.
Those dynamics were on display at the hearing as Republicans focused some criticism on the EPA, with Vance baselessly alleging that the people of East Palestine are “a little too rural, maybe a little too white” to elicit a quick response from politicians. Democrats, in turn, pursued Norfolk Southern with allegations of corporate greed; “Complacency breeds disaster,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told Shaw.
While Norfolk Southern initially pledged to clean up the mess voluntarily, the EPA is now formally overseeing the cleanup, requiring Norfolk Southern to submit plans for approval and threatening the company with fines for anything it skips over.
The derailment has turned broader scrutiny onto the railroard, which had lobbied against federal railroad regulations in the years before the derailment. This week, the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration launched reviews of the railway’s safety record, pointing to half a dozen serious incidents since December 2021, including three that left workers dead and a second derailment this month in Ohio.
“I hope he feels some pressure today,” East Palestine resident Erin Stauffer, 44, said of Shaw before the hearing, which she traveled to Washington to attend.
Lawmakers said they intend to advance legislation to improve rail safety regulations, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) calling on Shaw to announce support for the bill. Shaw said his company was “committed to the legislative intent to make rail safer.”
Vance, who was elected to the Senate in November on a hard-right platform, expressed frustration with Republicans who haven’t supported that legislation, 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 any government restrictions on business.
“Well, pot, meet the kettle, because that doesn’t make an ounce of sense,” Vance said. “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?”
Shaw was grilled by lawmakers 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, saying he would continue discussions with them about “important quality-of-life issues.”
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 working conditions.
“I have been told by workers who work for your company and other rail companies that they are now being asked to do more work with fewer workers, and that includes safety inspection,” Sanders said.
Shaw said the railroad was on a “hiring spree” under his tenure and would “move away” from a “focus solely on profits.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the committee’s ranking Democrat, also scolded Shaw.
“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,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the committee’s ranking Democrat.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the committee’s ranking Republican, criticized the EPA on Thursday for taking too long to communicate with the public, which she said allowed “armchair citizen scientists and political pundits” to fuel false narratives about the derailment.
“You can’t address fear and mistrust by pointing residents to an EPA website filled with fact sheets and press releases,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA did publish pollution data, though many Americans likely don’t know how to quickly interpret such data. Independent researchers later stepped in to put the data in context, saying it showed potential long-term risk. Officials have repeatedly said that monitoring shows the air and water in East Palestine have been safe since evacuated residents returned, and that toxins released into the air have dispersed.
But as attention has turned to the threat of long-term contamination of water and soil, the independent researchers found that air pollution is below thresholds considered unsafe for short-term exposure — but that several toxins could pose longer-term health issues if they remained at measured levels for years.
Three-quarters of East Palestine residents surveyed by federal and state health personnel reported headaches after the derailment, with more than half also reporting coughing, fatigue and skin burning or irritation. In addition, 64 percent said they’d suffered anxiety since the incident.
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. “These are legitimate questions, and I am committed to finding answers.”
Cleanup of the derailment site, where contracted crews this week were excavating soil under the train tracks, is ongoing. More than three 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.
This story will be updated.