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Head of Norfolk Southern apologizes for Ohio train derailment in Senate hearing

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The head of Norfolk Southern Railroad offered an apology today for the train derailment and release of toxic chemicals last month in East Palestine, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALAN SHAW: I want to begin today by expressing how deeply sorry I am for the impact this derailment has had on the residents of East Palestine and the surrounding communities.

CHANG: Norfolk Southern's CEO, Alan Shaw, appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. NPR's David Schaper covered the hearing and joins us now. Hey, David.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So, I mean, in that bit of tape we just heard, it sounds like Shaw was a bit remorseful. What else did he say about how the company's response has been to the derailment?

SCHAPER: Well, he actually apologized a few times and repeatedly said that he is determined to make this right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAW: Norfolk Southern will clean the site safely, thoroughly and with urgency. You have my personal commitment.

SCHAPER: Shaw says that the company has already spent more than $20 million on the cleanup and the recovery so far, adding that that's just a down payment - that Norfolk Southern will spend whatever it takes and will be there as long as it takes to make East Palestine and the surrounding communities whole again.

CHANG: OK. But how specific was he about that? I mean, did he say that Norfolk Southern will pay for everything - like from the cleanup to hotel rooms to health care? Like, what?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, that's the rub, Ailsa. He repeatedly told the panel that the company is committed to making things right and reimbursing area residents, but when pinned down, he refused to commit to compensation for specific kinds of expenses and losses, as in this exchange, when he was pressed by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey on whether the company would compensate homeowners for their diminished property values.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAW: Senator, I'm committed to doing what's right. Long-term...

ED MARKEY: That is the right thing to do. These are the people who are innocent victims, Mr. Shaw. These people were just there at home, and all of a sudden, their small businesses, their homes are forever going to have been diminished in value.

CHANG: I mean, the thing is, David, Norfolk Southern has been sharply criticized for, at least in the past, opposing stronger safety regulations for freight rail, right? Like, so did Shaw address that?

SCHAPER: Yeah, he did. Shaw repeatedly cited Norfolk Southern's safety record as one of the best in the industry, although we should note that the company had another train derail this morning in Alabama. No one was hurt in that incident, and the train wasn't carrying hazardous materials. But Shaw did acknowledge that, clearly, the current safety mechanisms in place were not enough. He said his company supports efforts to make tank cars stronger, to increase training for first responders and to add to the network of trackside detectors that can alert train crews to problems before a train derails.

But again, when pressed, Shaw says he is committed to the legislative intent to make rail safer, but did not specifically endorse the new bipartisan railway safety act that's been proposed by Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican J.D. Vance. And then Vance noted the opposition within his own party to additional regulations, and he called Republicans out on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J D VANCE: I believe that we are the party of working people, but it's time to be the party of working people. We have a choice. Are we for big business and big government, or are we for the people of East Palestine? It's a time for choosing. Let's make the right one.

CHANG: And real quick, David, what about the concerns about contaminated dirt around the derailment site and where that dirt is getting shipped now?

SCHAPER: Yeah. You know, some people have been critical of the EPA for briefly halting these shipments and leaving mounds of this stuff around, while others are critical of shipping this contaminated waste through and to other states. EPA regional administrator Debra Shore says the brief pause was to make sure the shipping was being done safely and to the proper disposal sites, but she admits communication could have been better.

CHANG: That is NPR's David Schaper. Thank you, David.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.