The Senate Committee heard testimony on Norfolk Southern’s safety record and how the February 3, 2023, derailment and the controlled burn of vinyl chloride impacted the East Palestine, OH, community.
Witnesses were present to make suggestions on improving the safety of the nation’s rail network, hazardous materials transportation safety, and emergency response, including the provisions of S. 576, the Railway Safety Act of 2023.
Witnesses included Jennifer Homendy, chair, National Transportation Safety Board; David Comstock, chief, Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District; Clyde Whitaker, Legislative director, Ohio State SMART-TD; Alan Shaw, CEO, Norfolk Southern; and Ian Jefferies, CEO, Association of American Railroads.
Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell said in the hearing she would push for quick passage of rail safety legislation after the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine.
She said she wants the committee to debate and approve rail safety legislation in April. Senators questioned Norfolk Southern Chief Executive Alan Shaw for the second time this month, and he backed calls for rail safety reform but did not endorse a bipartisan bill.
This month, a bipartisan group of senators led by Ohio's Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, introduced legislation to prevent future train disasters.
The bill would require enhanced safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, as well as require wayside defect detectors, a minimum of two-person crews and increased fines for wrongdoing.
Vance ridiculed suggestions by industry groups that the bill was a "big government solution" and said it was "insulting to the people of East Palestine."
Shaw did not endorse major provisions of the legislation, such as requiring two-person crews or hiking maximum civil penalties for railroads from $225,000 to 1% of annual operating income. He said the railroad supports regulator reviews of rules for rail car inspections and standards for freight car safety and accelerating the phase-out of older tank cars.
Brown said Norfolk Southern had 579 violations in a recent 12-month period in closed cases, and an average fine of less than $3,300. Brown said the fines are "meaningless. It’s not even a cost of doing business – it’s a rounding error."
Senator Ted Cruz, top Republican on the Commerce Committee, said he thinks Congress can pass legislation to boost rail safety without damaging supply chains or imposing unreasonable costs.
Senator Peter Welch pressed Shaw to suspend Norfolk Southern's stock buyback program but the CEO did not endorse the suggestion. "We spend $1 billion a year on capital on safety," Shaw said. "Stock buybacks never come at the expense of safety."
American Chemistry Council Responds
In connection with yesterday's hearing, American Chemistry Council (ACC) President and CEO Chris Jahn submitted a letter to committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell and Ranking Member Ted Cruz to outline industry’s commitment to rail safety and express support for several policy initiatives.
“ACC shares the Committee’s goal to advance transportation safety and protect public health and the environment,” Jahn wrote. “We also share the Committee’s gratitude to the emergency responders, government officials, and rail workers for their tireless efforts responding to this incident.”
The letter explains that chemicals are essential for growing food, protecting the safety of our water and food supply, producing energy, and making life-saving medicines and equipment. From farms to factories, more than 25% of the US economy and 4.2 million jobs depend on chemistry. “We ship chemicals because the country needs chemicals to support virtually every aspect of daily life,” Jahn pointed out.
The letter acknowledges ACC’s support for the legislative intent of the Railway Safety Act of 2023 (S. 576) and other proposals to further improve the safety of the nation’s rail network.
“ACC supports a multi-layered approach to transporting hazardous materials by rail. This includes a range of measures: first, to further reduce derailments and other accidents; second, to minimize the risk a rail accident will result in the release of hazardous material; and third, to strengthen emergency response and mitigate the impacts of any hazmat incident that does occur,” Jahn wrote.
To advance rail safety, ACC supports the development of new federal policies to:
- Establish federal standards for railcar defect detectors
- Improve tank car performance
- Support emergency responders
ACC encourages the development of federal standards for the placement and operation of railcar defect detectors. These requirements should be developed through a federal rulemaking process, be risk- and performance-based, and allow for continued technological progress and advancement.
He concluded the letter with "ACC supports a comprehensive and data-driven approach to enhance the safe transportation of hazardous materials by rail. Safety is a shared responsibility, and shippers, rail carriers, along with the federal government, have made steady progress by working together. But we can, and must, do more.”