WASHINGTON (AP), -- A chief executive of one the nation's most powerful railroads will appear before the Senate with an apology and a promise to send millions to the village at the Ohio-Pennsylvania frontier that was disrupted by a fiery train wreckage. Senators are investigating railway safety and the Biden Administration's response.
"I am deeply sorry about the damage this derailment has caused to the people of East Palestine and the surrounding communities and I am determined make it right," says Alan Shaw, CEO of Norfolk Southern in prepared remarks that were released by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works ahead of Thursday's hearing.
Shaw claims that the railroad will do "the right thing" with a $20 million pledge to the community.
The company has made several safety improvements. Senators have however promised to launch a thorough investigation into the derailment and safety practices of the company. They will also investigate the emergency response to the toppling 38 railcars. Federal regulators also stated that Norfolk Southern needs to do more to improve safety.
The crash did not result in any injuries, but the state and local authorities decided to burn the toxic vinyl chloride from five tanks cars. This led to the evacuation of approximately half the East Palestine residents. The village was surrounded by smoke and residents complained that they were still suffering from illness. This has led to high-level attention being paid to railroad safety as well as how dangerous materials are transported.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the chairman of the committee, said, 'I want them to tell me what they did wrong, and what mistakes they made'. "There have been many criticisms of their actions, and I would like to hear his response on the record."
Carper joined Sen. Shelley Capito, the top Republican on this committee, to speak with reporters Wednesday. They stressed that they would work in bipartisan mode 'to provide accountability to the communities, and people who have been affected'
Senate bipartisanship has been rekindled by the East Palestine disaster and other train derailments in recent weeks. On Thursday, the committee will hear from two senators from Ohio and Pennsylvania -- one Republican and two Democrats respectively -- who are proposing new safety regulations known as the Railway Safety Act of 2023.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, although train derailments are becoming less frequent, there were still over 1,000 last year. Even a single train accident involving hazardous materials can prove fatal.
Capito noted Wednesday's derailment of a train in West Virginia and deemed the hearing the Senate's first action on emergency response and railway safety. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation would be required to consider the new safety regulations.
The shipments of hazardous materials account for between 7% and 8% of the approximately 30 million shipments that railroads deliver to the U.S. every year. Railroads can mix shipments, so there might be one or two hazardous material cars on any train.
According to the Association of American Railroads, 99.9% of hazardous material shipments arrive safely at their destination. Railroads are generally considered the best option for transporting dangerous chemicals across country.
Washington legislators want railroads to be safer. The Railway Safety Act of 2023 has been supported by Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). It would require more detectors installed to monitor the temperature of the wheel bearings, notify states about hazardous materials being transported, and provide funding for hazmat training.
House Republicans are skeptical about the possibility of new railroad regulations being passed. The bill is being studied by GOP senators. They discussed it at their weekly luncheon, Tuesday. However, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) stated that most of his caucus prefers the bill to be negotiated in a committee.
Federal regulators are also putting pressure on Norfolk Southern. Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board announced this week that they are investigating the company's safety culture. According to the NTSB, its investigators will investigate five major accidents that occurred in Norfolk Southern between December 2021 and now.
According to the company, safety improvements are being implemented immediately. This includes adding 200 hot bearing detectors to its network. NTSB claims that a detector alerted the crew of the train that ran errands in Feb. 3, outside East Palestine. However, they were unable to stop the train before over three dozen cars were on the tracks and set fire.
Republican Senator JD Vance from Ohio pointed out that these voluntary steps were a sign that his bill was on the right track. However, the legislation's Democratic sponsors have stated that regulations should require operators to do more.
A Senate bill would require train crews to maintain two persons. This is to resolve a dispute between operators and railroad worker unions. Unions claim railroads are more risky due to the six-years of industry job cuts. Nearly one third of rail jobs have been eliminated. Train crews complain that they deal with fatigue because their work is 24/7.
The Republicans are also more interested in the emergency response to East Palestine's derailment. Thursday's Senate hearing will feature representatives from environmental protection at the federal, state, and local levels.
Capito stated that the people of East Palestine should know that we care. "We will be investigating the safety and environmental response.
She stated that President Joe Biden should have visited her community after the derailment. Although the Democratic president has stated that he would visit the community, the White House has not yet provided details. Pete Buttigieg, Transportation Secretary, visited East Palestine last month to push for improved safety protocols for trains.
Many East Palestine residents made their way to Washington on Thursday for the hearing. Misti Allison was one of them, and she has since joined Moms Clean Air Force. Officials continue to tell the residents of the town that water and air tests aren't showing any toxic levels, but Allison and other residents are concerned about the long-term effects.
"Everyone here wants it to go well. That is what we want so much. Allison stated that if it is, we must know."
She said that East Palestine can sometimes smell a chemical odor, and added: "Congress must hold responsible Norfolk Southern and these polluters/companies that run these bomb trains through neighborhoods like ours."
Allison stated that the railroad seems to be now trying to help the community. However, initially Norfolk Southern seemed more concerned about moving trains again than tidying up the mess.
"They want to make it right away... but their initial reaction and the way they handled it made it very clear that they are a business and will do what they can to maximize their profits margins," she stated.