Senators Unveil Freight Rail Safety Proposals

Hearing Follows Norfolk Southern Derailment in Ohio
Alan Shaw
Alan Shaw by C-SPAN

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During an examination of a recent freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the top senator on the transportation committee endorsed proposals meant to enhance safety along commercial supply chains.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works panel, expressed a sense of urgency regarding legislative efforts targeting commercial connectivity concerns raised after a Norfolk Southern train derailed Feb. 3.

“We must work together — with our colleagues on other relevant House and Senate committees — to strengthen our nation’s rail safety regulations, ensure compliance with them and prevent future incidents like this one from happening,” Carper said during an EPW hearing on March 9.

“We also need to make sure that the impacted communities receive the resources and support they need,” the chairman went on. “Our existing laws have allowed [the Environmental Protection Agency] to identify Norfolk Southern as a responsible party and begin to hold the corporation responsible for the costs of the emergency response, as well as for the long-term remediation of the area.”

A bipartisan group of senators recently introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023. The legislation aims to prevent train derailments by boosting myriad safety standards. It proposes new requirements and procedures for trains moving hazardous materials. The bill’s consideration in the chamber has yet to be scheduled.

“It shouldn’t take a train derailment for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people whom we serve, not corporations like Norfolk Southern,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a co-sponsor, told the EPW committee March 9.

“We are faced with a choice,” Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio.), a co-sponsor, also told the panel. “With this legislation and how we respond to this crisis, do we do the bidding of a massive industry that is in bed with big government or do we do the bidding of the people who elected us to the Senate and to the Congress in the first place. I believe that we are the party of working people. But it’s time to be the party of working people.”

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), primarily focused on the federal response to the derailment. “Before Congress considers any changes to existing laws, we must better understand what has gone wrong with this response so far and what can be done better in the future, but also what went right.

“So, to the residents of East Palestine and surrounding communities: Your Congress hears you,” Capito emphasized. “Every American deserves to feel safe in their home and confident that the water they drink and the air they breathe is safe.”

The White House welcomed the rail safety bill’s introduction in the Senate. As White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre put it, “We encourage Republicans and Democrats to continue to work together to … advance these common-sense rail safety measures.”

Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw, testifying before the EPW panel, pledged to cooperate with regulators and the National Transportation Safety Board, which are investigating the cause of the derailment. State and federal agencies also continue to test air and water quality amid hazardous materials that spilled into the community.

The company is leading a remediation and monitoring operation. “These teams have contained, diverted and treated affected portions of nearby waterways, have flushed nearly a mile of surface waterways, and are capturing rainwater within the contaminated areas for temporary storage and disposal. To date, we have recovered and transported more than 3.5 million gallons of potentially affected water from the site for disposal at EPA-approved facilities,” Shaw told senators.

On the House side, the train derailment led House transportation committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) and Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Troy Nehls (R-Texas) to seek after-action reports from the EPA.

The Republican transportation leaders requested the agency’s administrator provide “a document sufficient to describe EPA’s role in responding to the train derailment, including but not limited to, when EPA’s response role began, the anticipated timeline for response efforts, and the names and titles of EPA officials responsible for leading the response.”

Graves and Nehls set a March 13 deadline to hear back from EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

Multiple federal agencies have responded to the derailment. This month, the Federal Railroad Administration indicated it will conduct a 60-day supplemental safety assessment of Norfolk Southern.

“After a series of derailments and the death of one of its workers, we are initiating this further supplemental safety review of Norfolk Southern, while also calling on Norfolk Southern to act urgently to improve its focus on safety so the company can begin earning back the trust of the public and its employees,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on March 8. “This comes as U.S. DOT continues its own urgent actions to further improve freight rail safety and accountability.”

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