On the same day Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw assured a U.S. Senate committee that the company would clean up the mess from last month’s train derailment in Ohio, a trade group issued a national advisory about potentially loose wheels on rail cars and another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Alabama.
Shaw testified before the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee more than a month after the Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine. An initial report from the National Transportation Safety Board found that the train derailed after the crew was alerted to an overheated wheel bearing.
“Norfolk Southern will clean up the site safely, thoroughly and urgently,” Shaw told senators. “You have my personal commitment: Norfolk Southern will get the job done and help East Palestine thrive.”
But Shaw faced pointed questions from the group about the company’s response and whether it would support efforts to make rail safer after the accident.
Within hours of witness testimony, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Alabama, and a national rail trade group called on U.S. railroads to take certain cars out of service after Norfolk Southern discovered loose wheels on its car involved in a second derailment in Ohio last week.
Here’s what we know:
‘The Right Thing’
South Norfolk’s first derailment spilled toxic chemicals into the environment, but state and federal officials say the village’s air and water systems are now safe. However, residents remain worried about their community and report headaches, rashes and other health problems.
During the hearing, Shaw touted Norfolk Southern’s efforts to help East Palestine and address those concerns.
The company has spent $21 million so far and has reached out to the community to report problems to Shaw’s office. It also worked with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to establish a regional training center for first responders in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to help them safely respond to rail emergencies.
But Shaw was willing to make so many commitments. He declined to say whether Norfolk Southern would compensate residents for long-term medical needs or reduced property values. Instead, he repeatedly said the railroad would do “what’s right” and generally said everything was on the table.
“The right thing to do is say, ‘Yes, we will,'” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
Ohio, Pennsylvania officials are dealing with communication issues
Testimony from officials in Ohio and Pennsylvania highlighted communication gaps that hampered the initial response to the derailment.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., cited a letter from Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro criticizing Norfolk Southern’s handling of the incident, particularly its lack of communication with emergency responders. Shapiro said the railroad company failed to communicate its intent to release and burn all five cars containing vinyl chloride instead of just one.
Company officials said the controlled release was necessary to prevent a much more catastrophic explosion. But Eric Brewer of Beaver County Emergency Services in Pennsylvania said Norfolk Southern’s sudden change of plans has caused confusion for everyone involved.
“The decision to go from one tanker to five was mind-blowing just because of the impact it had,” Brewer said.
In addition to the company, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, expressed concern that the EPA did not provide enough answers to the people in the immediate aftermath. She said news releases and online fact sheets don’t go far enough to convey data to residents about the safety of their air and water.
“Initial delays in messaging and response mean residents still don’t trust the results enough to feel safe, and trust is essential in these situations,” Capito said.
Will Norfolk Southern support the rail safety bill?
U.S. Senators from Ohio, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican JD Vance, spoke at a hearing Thursday on bipartisan legislation they introduced that would strengthen oversight of trains carrying hazardous materials and increase penalties for railroads that violate the rules.
Shaw said Norfolk Southern supports the “legislative intent to make rail transportation safer” and welcomed some parts of the bill, including better standards for tank cars. But the measure also includes a requirement that at least two crew members work in rail operations, something Norfolk Southern previously lobbied against.
It’s also unclear whether Vance will be able to generate enough Republican support for the legislation. He expressed frustration with some members of his party who are skeptical about piling more regulations on the rail industry.
“Are we doing the bidding of a massive industry that’s in bed with big government, or are we doing the bidding of the people who elected us to the Senate and Congress in the first place?” Vance said. “I believe we’re the party of working people, but it’s time to be the party of the working people’.
Brown noted that the East Palestine derailment is not South Norfolk’s only problem.
Nearly 30 cars on one of its freight trains derailed near Springfield over the weekend, even though the train was not carrying any hazardous materials. Days later, a South Norfolk worker died after being struck at a railroad crossing near a steel mill in Cleveland.
Just before Thursday’s hearing began, another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Alabama.
What’s happening?:Trains continue to derail across the country. Here’s what we know.
Southern Norfolk officials say there is no public threat from the Alabama derailment
The 37-car train that derailed in Calhoun County, Ala., had no hazardous materials on board, Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker said Thursday.
Two of the cars were considered “residual” because they had previously contained hazardous materials but were not at risk, he added.
“There is no leakage of hazardous materials,” Spielmaker said at a news conference in Oxford, Alabama on Thursday. “There is no risk to the public.
Removing the rail cars could take several days as the cause of the accident is investigated, he said.
There were no injuries or blocked roads, said Miles Chamble, director of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.
Railroads remove rail cars after Norfolk Southern finds ‘loose wheels’
Also Thursday, Norfolk Southern reported loose wheels were found on a series of rail cars involved in the March 5 derailment near Springfield, Ohio — the state’s second in five weeks.
In a statement, Norfolk Southern said that after discovering “additional instances of unusual wheel movement” it notified incident investigators and the rest of the rail industry.
“Although the investigation into the cause of the accident is still ongoing, we immediately notified the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration and began inspecting other cars of this series on our network,” Norfolk Southern said. “We have issued orders to remove these vehicles from service until their axles can be replaced and have taken steps to remove this particular model and series from service until they have been fully inspected.”
In response, the trade group Association of American Railroads issued an advisory calling for certain railcars to be taken out of service after the second derailment.
The trade group said the problem was related to new wheels that were fitted to specialist cars with steel coils in early August. The association said all cars with these wheels should be inspected and replaced immediately.
Railroads across the country initially identified 675 cars affected by the advisory and pulled them off the tracks, Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek told The Associated Press.
Haley Bemiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Ohio bureau. Credit: Associated Press.