Equilibrium & Sustainability

Democrats call for answers from Norfolk Southern on East Palestine derailment

FILE – A view of the scene Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, as the cleanup continues at the site of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment that happened on Feb. 3, in East Palestine, Ohio. On Tuesday, Feb. 28, in the wake of a fiery Ohio derailment and other recent crashes, federal regulators urged that freight railroads should reexamine the way they use and maintain the detectors along the tracks that are supposed to spot overheating bearings. (AP Photo/Matt Freed, File)

Democrats on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee are demanding urgent answers from Norfolk Southern about the role the company’s lobbying against safety standards played in the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials outside East Palestine, Ohio.

These questions — packaged in a scathing critique of the company’s business practices and crash history — came on the heels of another derailment of a Norfolk Southern train on Saturday evening outside Springfield, Ohio. 

Norfolk Southern’s promises to do better after the East Palestine spill “cannot be squared with the company’s history of aggressively lobbying against sensible railroad safety measures,” the Democrats wrote.

The Hill has reached out to Norfolk Southern for comment.

The Democrats’ letter, led by Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.), focused on the company’s history of cutting staff and operating costs while sending $18 billion to shareholders since 2018.

As its dividend payouts and stock buybacks increased, Norfolk Southern began “simultaneously scaling back its workforce and running longer, heavier trains in an apparent effort to reduce costs,” the letter charged.

Norfolk Southern’s attempted rollbacks have also increased, the Democrats noted. In December, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw met with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to lobby against a new rule requiring freight trains to have at least two crew members at all times. 

Shaw will testify before the Senate on Thursday.

Democrats demanded details on the role all these developments had played in the East Palestine crash — as well as a full record of aid given to the community, in addition to conditions the company had placed on those who received it.

By accepting compensation from the company, residents risked “unintentionally waiv[ing] their rights to more comprehensive compensation later,” law firm Plevin and Gallucci warned potential East Palestine clients last week. 

The Democrats’ letter comes in response to attacks from the committee’s Republicans on Buttigieg — a primary focus of Republican ire and politicking since the East Palestine derailment. Since mid-February, conservative pundits and politicians have attacked the secretary for taking nearly three weeks to visit the crash site.

In his criticisms of Norfolk Southern, Buttigieg has “attempted to blame others for infrastructure that is within [the Transportation Department’s] ambit of responsibilities,” chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) wrote Buttigieg in late February.

Comer cited the billions that the department had received under the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill to revamp American railways.

“Yet America now faces one of transportation’s largest failures, even while DOT seems to not lack available funding. In America, over 1,000 trains derail every year,” Comer wrote. 

He demanded that the department “explain its leadership’s apathy in the face of this emergency.”

Democrats have criticized Republicans for not pointing to Norfolk Southern, which they noted was missing in the Comer letter.

“It is time to put partisan politics aside and ensure a full accounting of all the facts—no matter how inconvenient,”  the Democrats wrote Comer last Wednesday.

“Despite your pledge last December to use the powers of this Committee to ‘conduct credible oversight, identify problems, and propose reforms,’ your February 23, 2023, letter to Secretary Buttigieg failed to ask a single legitimate question aimed at obtaining ‘answers as to what caused the derailment.’”

That quote refers to promises Comer made before assuming leadership of the committee in January, which he laid out in a Wall Street Journal editorial.

That priority list includes a laundry list of Republican culture war issues, such as “the border and fentanyl crises, pandemic relief fraud, botched Afghanistan withdrawal, energy crisis, Covid origins, and the Biden family’s suspicious business schemes,” as Comer wrote at the time.

Oversight Republicans never responded to their letter, frustrated Democratic staffers told The Hill.

Saturday’s derailment outside Springfield, Ohio, saw 28 cars derailed, four of which carried the plastic precursor polyacrylamide.

Polyacrylamide is far less toxic than the 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride spilled or burned off from the East Palestine spill — unlike the vinyl chloride, it isn’t listed as a hazardous material and is often used to make toys, sowed into farm soil to increase drainage and air circulation, and used in fracking fluid.

But that is more a matter of luck than planning. According to the Energy Information Agency, the Midwest is the primary source for rail shipments of flammable materials like biodiesels and fuel ethanol. And the fracking fields of the Ohio Valley have fueled a growing “spiderweb” of plastics refining along the region’s close-packed rivers, environmental news site Grist reported.

In the Senate, the continued risks of rail disasters in the region have prompted more collaborative responses from local members. Last week, a bipartisan group led by Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown (D) and J.D. Vance (R) introduced a joint railway safety bill.

That union-backed bill — which also included Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), John Fetterman (D-Pa.), and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) as sponsors — would require trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride to meet higher safety standards and to operate with two-person crews.

They would also establish more stringent requirements for wayside defect detectors — the railside sensors that scan for whether a bearing is overheating, a potential indicator of a coming derailment.

It would also “substantially increase” the fines that the Department of Transportation can charge for safety violations — currently set at just $225,455.

“Through this legislation, Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in East Palestine will never happen again,” Vance said last week.

Following the Springfield derailment, Brown also doubled down.

“Sandusky, Steubenville, East Palestine, and now Springfield — four Norfolk Southern derailments in less than five months because this corporation has been more concerned with its profit margin than with Ohioans’ safety,” Brown said in a statement. 

Tags East Palestine train derailment House Oversight Committee James Comer James Comer Jamie Raskin Norfolk Southern Ohio Pete Buttigieg

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