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Norfolk Southern faces harsh US Senate criticism after Ohio derailment



© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A burnt container is seen at the site where toxic chemicals were spilled following a train derailment, in East Palestine, Ohio, U.S., February 15, 2023. REUTERS/Alan Freed

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A U.S. Senate committee harshly criticized rail operator Norfolk Southern (NYSE:) and pressed it to back safety reforms on Thursday after a devastating Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, of a freight train carrying hazardous materials.

Norfolk Southern has been under fire after a number of derailments of its trains, particularly one it operated in East Palestine, Ohio, that caused cars carrying toxic vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals to spill and catch fire.

Senators from both parties said Congress must pass reforms to boost rail safety regulations and pressed Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw to endorse improvements.

“It’s our responsibility in Congress to answer: What went wrong? What do we need to do to fix it? What can we do to make sure it does not happen again?” Senate Environment and Public Works committee chair Tom Carper said in opening the hearing, adding Congress must work to strengthen rail safety, ensure compliance and prevent future accidents.

At the hearing Shaw apologized and pledged to improve safety and address impacts including thoroughly cleaning the site. He said the railroad is committed the “legislative intent to make rail safer” but did not endorse the bill.

“I am deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities,” Shaw said, pledging to compensate families and clean the site.

Shaw faced questions about where the hazardous materials will be sent and the decision to conduct a controlled venting and burning of vinyl chloride in five tank cars.

Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown said Norfolk Southern used much of its “massive profits” to hike executive pay and pay shareholders rather than on safety measures. “The company followed the Wall Street business model,” Brown said, saying the railroad eliminated 38% of its jobs over a decade.

A bipartisan group of senators led by Brown and Ohio Republican J.D. Vance introduced legislation to prevent train disasters. It would require enhanced safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, as well as require wayside defect detectors, a minimum of two-person crews and increased fines for wrongdoing.

Vance rejected suggestions from some fellow Republicans that any new rail safety measures are a violation of free market principles, arguing railroads enjoy “special subsidies” and “special legal carve outs” few industries receive.

Vance noted Congress stepped in last year to impose labor contracts over the objections of workers that he called a “bailout.”

“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 that elected us,” Vance asked at the hearing.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) both announced new safety probes after the death of a conductor in Cleveland, Ohio, when a train was struck by a dump truck.

The NTSB said it was opening a special investigation and urged “the company to take immediate action today to review and assess its safety practices.”

Following the East Palestine derailment, some of the town’s 4,700 residents have reported ailments such as rashes and breathing difficulties and fear long-term health effects. No deaths or injuries were reported after the accident.

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