Norfolk Southern will be there ‘as long as it takes,’ CEO tells Pa. lawmakers

Alan Shaw apologized during a hearing but avoided specifics surrounding the emergency response decision-making process and long-term recovery

By: - March 20, 2023 3:07 pm

Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw appears before the Pennsylvania Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee on Monday, March 20, 2023, to discuss a Feb. 3 train derailment in Ohio. (Screenshot)

Lawmakers pressed for answers about last month’s fiery train derailment along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border as Norfolk Southern’s president and CEO apologized during a hearing for the disaster’s impact but avoided specifics surrounding the emergency response decision-making process and long-term recovery.

Alan Shaw, responding to a subpoena from the Pennsylvania Senate Veteran Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee on Monday, pledged to help communities affected by the derailment recover, saying Norfolk Southern is “going to be there as long as it takes.”

“I am deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people in Pennsylvania and the region,” Shaw said in prepared remarks. “And I am determined to make it right.”

Responding to questions from lawmakers on the 11-member panel, Shaw, who has served in his current role since May 2022, said Norfolk Southern is prepared to offer assistance — even if it’s five years from now — but refrained from making an explicit monetary commitment or giving a timeline to provide resources to those affected by the derailment. 

The specifics, he testified, are being worked out with stakeholders as part of a long-term fund to address health costs, water monitoring, and property values.

He cited the company’s multi-million dollar commitment to reimburse first responders and help local business owners and residents affected by the derailment recover. While the financial assistance is “just a down payment,” Shaw added that Norfolk Southern can learn from the derailment to improve safety.

Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, who chairs the committee, and Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, repeatedly asked Shaw about testing efforts — necessary because several cars involved in the derailment were carrying hazardous materials that were released into the air, soil, and groundwater — and what information helped guide emergency response.

The bulk of decisions, Shaw answered, were made by what he called “unified command,” which included “federal, state, and local agencies from Pennsylvania and Ohio.” Shaw did not disclose specific individuals — other than an unnamed local fire chief — and told lawmakers he would later provide a list.

“Unified command,” Shaw said, guided decisions about lifting the evacuation order implemented after the Feb. 3 derailment, so officials could release vinyl chloride, a hazardous chemical carried on the train, to avoid an explosion on Feb. 6. The group also helped decide to vent and burn the chemicals, Shaw testified.

“The role of Norfolk Southern throughout the process was to be as transparent as possible and provide as much information to unified command about the situation,” Shaw said.

Mastriano and Muth expressed concern over testing agencies withholding certain information, noting that residents affected by the derailment and those who visited the crash site have reported feeling sick and symptoms of nausea, headaches, and throat issues.

Muth, who has previously expressed concern about whether state agencies are withholding certain testing samples, asked Shaw why Norfolk Southern established a Family Assistance Center — which assists affected residents — if no one was poisoned. Norfolk Southern has maintained that testing has shown “no signs of contamination,” Shaw said.

In addition to providing information and reimbursement to those in need, the center was also designed to provide air and water testing information from the U.S. EPA, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Shaw said.

Asked about efforts to monitor air and water for toxicity, Shaw said it was his understanding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was on-site “very shortly” after the derailment to conduct testing and that if residents wanted a test conducted for their home, that option was available. He again urged residents in the affected area who feel sick to seek medical care and contact the assistance center for possible support.

Lawmakers also heard from Andrew Whelton, an environmental and ecological engineer at Purdue University in Indiana, and Robert Comer, a forensic railroad accident investigator who described the railroad industry as “the most protected and coddled industry” in the United States.

After United for East Palestine, a community group, reached out to Whelton with safety concerns, he traveled to Ohio three times with a volunteer-based research team that conducted air and water testing. Whelton told lawmakers that “acute health risks” remained despite agencies reporting that testing showed no concern.

Whelton testified that his team notified the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. EPA, and Ohio officials about their findings, asking them to intervene and protect residents from remaining risks.

He added that researchers also submitted a letter to the U.S. Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, which includes U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., to notify lawmakers that they found “several chemicals in the creek water that officials weren’t testing for but were definitely related to the fire.”

Whelton, who said he experienced headaches after visiting East Palestine, added that he’s urged federal and state agencies to correct testing, but they haven’t seen those steps taken.

He also noted inconsistencies in testing at the federal and state levels, saying that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has indicated that it’s testing for three chemicals in wells — vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol, and ethanol — but they’re not testing for enough chemicals, such as acrolein, which is a carcinogen, and heavy metals.

“It’s pretty hard to understand what the health risks are for something if you’re not testing for them,” he said, adding that acute exposure to acrolein can lead to nausea, vomiting, and ear, nose, and throat issues.

Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Mercer, asked that Whelton, who agreed to the request, reach out to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and suggest what it should be testing for and why.

As for how long testing should occur, Whelton said it depends on proximity to the incident site.

“I advise agencies when I get involved in these types of disasters that they need to throw the kitchen sink at it initially to figure out what they need to test for, what they don’t need to test for,” Whelton said.

Earlier this month, the committee advanced two pieces of legislation to create a grant program for Pennsylvania residents affected by the train derailment and urge Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.

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