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Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw vows to "make it right" in East Palestine in Senate testimony

Norfolk Southern CEO grilled by senators
Norfolk Southern CEO grilled by senators about East Palestine train derailment 02:51

Washington — The chief executive of the Norfolk Southern railroad line appeared before a Senate panel on Thursday to answer questions about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, last month that set off a wave of concerns about threats to the environment and public health.

CEO Alan Shaw testified alongside federal and local environmental officials for the hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Shaw, in his opening remarks, told committee members that he is "deeply sorry" for the impact the derailment had on the East Palestine community and that he is "determined to make it right."

The Norfolk Southern chief also highlighted financial assistance available for families affected by the toxic train incident and first responders, including the railroad company's $20 million commitment for reimbursements and investments.

"I am going to see this through. There are no strings attached to our assistance — if residents have a concern, we want them to come talk to us," Shaw said. "I pledge that we won't be finished until we make it right."   

He vowed the company "will clean the site thoroughly, and with urgency. We are making progress every day."

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testifies before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on March 9, 2023.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testifies before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on March 9, 2023. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The Senate panel also heard from a panel of three senators — Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance of Ohio, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. The trio co-sponsored a rail safety bill that aims to prevent future derailments and imposes new requirements for rail carriers carrying hazardous materials. 

"It shouldn't take a train derailment for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve — not corporations like Norfolk Southern," Brown told his Senate colleagues. "Lobbyists for the rail companies spent years fighting every effort to strengthen rules to make our trains and rail lines safer. Now Ohioans are paying the price."

Vance told reporters outside the rail safety hearing he believes his and Brown's bill can pass the Senate, but was less certain about its fate in the House. President Biden has endorsed the plan and called for Congress to swiftly pass it. 

Addressing his GOP colleagues who oppose the bill, the freshman senator said, "There is nothing about the conservative worldview or our principles that requires us to take a knee to a massive corporation that's in bed with the government that gets special privileges with the government and is refusing to do its job."

The derailment of the Norfolk Southern train took place Feb. 3, when 38 rail cars, 11 of which contained hazardous materials including vinyl chloride, went off the tracks, starting a fire.

Concerned about an explosion, officials authorized a controlled burn of the chemicals, though the release raised more fears from residents about health risks associated with exposure to the toxic chemicals that were released into the air.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency have sought to reassure residents of East Palestine and surrounding communities that the water is safe and air quality normal.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a preliminary report that found a wheel bearing overheated just before the derailment.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg visited the site of the derailment on Feb. 23, but his trip to East Palestine came amid criticisms that he waited too long to respond to the incident. Buttigieg has said he didn't visit East Palestine sooner because he wanted to give the NTSB and emergency workers space to do their jobs.

The toxic train disaster has prompted calls for Norfolk Southern about its safety standards, and the company pledged to review its protocols.

A union of Norfolk Southern workers filed a complaint last summer that alleged "some very unsafe practices/concerns," according to a copy of the document obtained by CBS News. 

The complaint referenced two incidents in 2022. On June 24, the memo says a complainant alleged a conductor was told not to inspect a train in "direct violation" of the company's operating rules. On June 26, the complainant claimed a Norfolk Southern dispatcher told a crew to carry on without an inspection despite encountering a defective wayside detector, according to the memo.

In response to the complaint, a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) official interviewed the complainant and in a follow-up letter acknowledged "although NS appears to have not followed their own rules," those rules weren't covered by federal regulation. The official indicated Norfolk Southern would do their own investigation and the FRA would "conduct a follow-up meeting with NS to ascertain the findings of their review of radio transmissions and whether they have taken any corrective actions."  

Ahead of Thursday's hearing, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Piedmont, Alabama. Calhoun County Sheriff Matthew Wade told CBS Birmingham affiliate WIAT that about 30 empty train cars derailed and no injuries were reported. Norfolk Southern said in a statement that there were no reports of hazardous materials being released. 

Michael Kaplan and Jack Turman contributed to this report

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