Norfolk Southern CEO appears before Ohio Senate Rail Committee

Susan Tebben, Ohio Capital Journal

The president and CEO of the train company spotlighted in the East Palestine train disaster appeared by the Ohio Senate Select Committee on Rail Safety to explain his company’s role in the mess, and in cleaning it up.

“We are a safe railroad,” said president and CEO Alan Shaw. “Norfolk Southern is a safe railroad.”

Shaw, who has only been in the CEO chair since last May, said the company is “fully cooperating” with the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the February derailment that caused toxic chemicals to infiltrate the soil and water surrounding the railroad tracks, and necessitated a village evacuation and controlled burn within the wreckage.

“You have my personal commitment that will get the job done and help this community thrive,” Shaw told the committee on Tuesday.

The CEO said he has visited the village many times since the incident occurred, including in “small group listening sessions” held everywhere from churches to schools to family rooms, getting input from residents.

One piece of advice East Palestine residents gave Shaw was not to leave dirt impacted by the derailment underneath the tracks.

“It was really clear to me that the folks in that community were not comfortable with that approach,” Shaw said.

To date, Norfolk Southern has hauled more than 27,000 tons of soil off site, and 12 million gallons of water, according to Shaw. Soil removal and rebuild of one track has been completed, he said, and track two is in progress.

Rail Safety Committee members questioned Shaw on Norfolk Southern’s role in the derailment and in its overarching commitment not only to clean up East Palestine, but to prevent the disaster from happening again.

“There’s some concerns, not only about what happened in East Palestine, but also the issue of safety in terms of the transportation of hazardous materials,” said state Sen. Paula Hicks-Hudson, D-Toledo.

But some of the problems that caused the derailment weren’t laid solely on Norfolk Southern’s head, as Shaw pointed to privately-owned train cars and non-NS-owned tanker cars as targets of NTSB investigation.

It was a privately-owned car 23rd in line in the February transport – a car holding plastic pellets – that housed the faulty wheel bearing Shaw said was identified by NTSB as “the potential source of catastrophic failure.”

Shaw said a wayside detector alerted drivers to the wheel bearing, which caused them to work to slow the train down.

“By that time, regrettably, the bearing had already failed and the train was already in the process of derailing,” Shaw said.

NTSB has released a preliminary report, but a final report has not yet been made public.

“Surveillance video from a local residence showed what appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment,” the preliminary report found.

In the preliminary report, the federal agency found that five tank cars were carrying 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride.

Tanker cars with faulty pressure relief valves also were not owned by Norfolk Southern, according to Shaw.

As they wait on the final NTSB report, Norfolk Southern is focused on long-term needs of the community, including health care, property values and water monitoring, which Shaw says the company is taking seriously.

“We’re going to do more than the norm on the environmental remediation, we’re going to do more than the norm on the community response and I am personally going to be more involved than the norm,” Shaw told the committee.

Under the direction of Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, the company is “working with experts and relative stakeholders” to bring about funds for these longterm needs, according to Shaw.

He’s also headed to Capitol Hill to discuss rail safety bills introduced by members of Ohio’s congressional delegation. Shaw said he plans to “express a full-throated endorsement for many of the safety provisions” held in bills by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance and U.S. Reps. Bill Johnson and Emilia Sykes.