Norfolk Southern CEO Makes Obligatory Congressional Appearance But Doesn’t Commit to Rail Safety Changes

Yves right here. Norfolk Southern acquired a luck break when the Silvergate liquidation and Silicon Valley Financial institution shuttering ate the enterprise part headline, so its lame efficiency earlier than Congress went largely unnoticed. This text helps to deal with to lapse. Importantly, it presents testimony that contracts the Norfolk Southern pretext for burning 5 railcars of poisonous chemical compounds: that they have been heating and prone to explosion. Most observers didn’t purchase that and acknowledged the extra probably purpose was the railroad’s eagerness to get rail service again on observe.

Certainly, it seems that at most solely one of many rail automobiles was getting scorching.

Nonetheless, this in any other case helpful article latches onto the notion, totally debunked by Lambert, that failure to implement brake regulation was a giant reason for the crash. Actually, it was precision scheduled railroading…whose results rail employees sought to have addressed within the 2022 strike risk. The Biden Administration quashed these calls for.

By Justin Mikulka, a analysis fellow at New Consensus. Initially printed at DeSmogBlog

An aerial view of the Norfolk Southern freight practice derailment in East Palestine, Ohio captured on February 5, 2023. Credit score: Nationwide Transportation Security Board, public area​

On March 9, the Senate held the primary congressional listening to on rail security following the February 3 Norfolk Southern rail catastrophe by which a virtually two-mile-long practice carrying hazardous supplies derailed and caught fireplace in East Palestine, Ohio. If the individuals of East Palestine have been hoping to see the wheels of justice begin to flip of their favor with this listening to, they might be sorely upset. The listening to started with some troubling revelations from a primary responder, earlier than senators went on to grill Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, who dodged questions and refused to decide to any significant adjustments to his firm’s security technique.

It probably wasn’t a nice expertise for Shaw, particularly when Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) knowledgeable him mid-hearing that one other of Norfolk Southern’s trains had simply derailed. Nonetheless, even this painful irony couldn’t nudge Shaw towards particular commitments to financially assist East Palestine residents or to again new rail security laws.

Among the worst fears over public and environmental well being within the East Palestine catastrophe, which is unfolding in a area long-plagued by industrial air pollution, facilities on vinyl chloride, a colorless gasoline related to numerous cancers and used to make plastics. The derailed Norfolk Southern practice was carrying 5 rail tank automobiles of this chemical, and apprehensive a few potential explosion, the emergency response carried out a managed burn of these 5 rail automobiles. This managed burn created a large cloud of poisonous smoke that hung over the area for hours on account of a climate phenomenon that held it low within the ambiance.

A smoke plume rises into the sky over East Palestine in the course of the February 6, 2023 managed burn of rail automobiles holding vinyl chloride on the Norfolk Southern derailment website. The U.S. Environmental Safety Company (EPA) was monitoring air high quality. Credit score: EPA, public area

On February 6, Norfolk Southern mentioned this managed burn was obligatory as a result of the temperature in one of many tanks was rising and there was danger of an explosion that probably would have despatched shrapnel flying in a mile radius and uncovered the city to the vinyl chloride. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine corroborated this report, saying he was given “two dangerous choices” for the result in East Palestine.

Nonetheless, shortly after the accident, Sil Caggiano, a hazardous supplies specialist and former Battalion Chief with the Youngstown, Ohio fireplace division, informed WKBN that, “We principally nuked a city with chemical compounds so we might get a railroad open.”

Eric J. Brewer, Director of Emergency Companies for Beaver County, Pennsylvania, was one of many first responders on the scene in East Palestine and testified on the Congressional listening to. Throughout questioning, he described studying of the choice to change from a managed burn of the one vinyl chloride automotive that was heating as much as all 5 automobiles as “jaw-dropping.” He was not concerned on this resolution, in line with his testimony.

Brewer additionally famous how the emergency response modified as soon as Norfolk Southern administration confirmed up. “The boots-on-the-ground crews have been nice to work with,” Brewer mentioned. “It appears as bosses or administration get there, that’s the place the communication failures begin.”

In Brewer’s opening assertion, he defined that Norfolk Southern pushed the choice to burn all 5 tanks holding vinyl chloride and made this modification in technique outdoors of the coordination course of involving first responders:

“We realized that Norfolk Southern wished to do a managed detonation of the tank automotive in query. We have been assured this was the most secure technique to maintain the railcar that was inflicting the issue. This was to happen across the midday timeframe on Monday. After we have been in one of many planning conferences we realized from Norfolk Southern officers that they now wished to do the managed detonation on 5 of the tank automobiles somewhat than simply the one that everybody was considering. This modified your entire plan as a result of it was going to be an even bigger influence to the world. This confusion was as a result of Norfolk Southern officers didn’t talk and weren’t within the room when the planning course of was occurring.”

If just one tank automotive was heating up, why have been all 5 deliberately burned? This resolution probably launched as much as 5 instances extra poisonous contamination into the encompassing air. On March 2, Shaw defined to the Related Press why responders finally burned all 5 rail automobiles.

“The components on the bottom at the moment have been that the protection valves on the rail automobiles had failed and the temperatures contained in the railcars have been heating up,” Shaw informed the AP.

Nonetheless, the Norfolk Southern CEO’s clarification stands in distinction to the declare that just one automotive was experiencing a temperature rise, which is what Brewer defined beneath oath on the March 9 Senate listening to and what the Nationwide Transportation Security Board (NTSB) initially concluded in a preliminary report printed on February 23. In line with that NTSB report, “5 derailed DOT-105 specification tank automobiles (railcars 28–31 and 55) carrying 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride continued to concern authorities as a result of the temperature inside one tank automotive was nonetheless rising.” 

Since that point, the NTSB has mentioned that three of the 5 strain aid units on the rail tank automobiles might have been compromised when their aluminum covers melted within the fireplace that resulted from the derailment, however provided no definitive proof that this had affected the discharge valves’ efficiency. The company will probably be investigating additional. The opposite two automobiles’ valves had metal covers, which don’t soften in fires. The primary function of those strain aid units is to launch strain inside tank automobiles on account of fireplace. At present, there are not any laws requiring the rail business to have metal covers on these units. That’s not shocking as a result of the rail business resists regulationat any time when doable and could be very profitable at rolling again or weakening even the few security guidelines that its regulators have enacted.

At the very least one senator appeared skeptical of the choice to burn all 5 tanks of vinyl chloride. “Somebody might must be held accountable who made the choice to burn this off, as a result of a few of this, numerous this might have been prevented,” mentioned Senator Markwayne Mullin (R-OK).

The individuals of East Palestine and the broader area will probably be coping with the results of that call for a very long time. In the meantime, the tracks broken by the derailment are again in place, and trains have been touring via East Palestine on February 10, only a week after the accident darkened the skies of the Ohio River Valley.

Norfolk CEO Refuses to Assist New Proposed Rail Security Rules

In response to the East Palestine catastrophe, on February 21 the Biden administration introduced plans for “pursuing additional rulemaking, to the extent doable beneath present statute, on high-hazard flammable trains (HHFT) and electronically managed pneumatic brakes (ECP).” As DeSmog has defined, the addition of electronically managed pneumatic brakes is probably going an important and quick measure that may considerably enhance rail security.

In 2015, the Obama Division of Transportation issued laws requiring trendy ECP brakes for trains carrying hazardous supplies, however simply two years later, the company, then beneath President Trump, repealed them.

Within the March 9 listening to, Senator Whitehouse famous that Norfolk Southern was on the report saying that the 2015 security laws have been “not within the public curiosity.” Whitehouse informed Shaw that he wasn’t in search of any additional remark from the CEO on ECP brakes right now however formally requested from him, “All communications between your organization and commerce affiliation with the Trump administration related to that repeal.” If these communications grow to be public, they might present new perception into the rail business’s ongoing makes an attempt to combat security laws that might shield the general public. 

The senators on the listening to additionally took goal at Norfolk Southern’s company monetary priorities. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) requested Shaw if he would “decide to no extra inventory buybacks till you spend money on security.” In his feedback, Merkley famous that in 2016 a Union Pacific oil practice had derailed and exploded in a near-miss not removed from a college in Mosier, Oregon. He went on to precise confidence that “if we are able to put individuals on the moon, we are able to put brakes on each practice automotive.”

“I hope you assist the coordinated electronically managed system you’ve been combating towards for years,” the Oregon senator completed to Shaw.

In response, the Norfolk Southern CEO didn’t decide to any concrete actions, equivalent to halting inventory buybacks. As an alternative, Shaw mentioned solely, “We’re dedicated to the legislative intent to make rail safer.”

Throughout the listening to, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) made the essential level, additionally reached by the NTSB, that this accident was “preventable” and “a catastrophe ready to occur.” He attributed the trigger to “company greed” and known as “outdated railway security laws” gasoline for “the poisonous fireplace that was able to combust.”

In closing his feedback, Senator Markey requested Shaw if he would make the residents and enterprise homeowners of East Palestine financially complete. The rail CEO responded with a variation of a phrase he used at the least 5 instances within the listening to: “Senator, I’m dedicated to do what’s proper.” Markey replied emphatically that making the residents financially complete was “the appropriate factor to do!”

Historical past Rhymes in East Palestine
The current congressional listening to was harking back to many comparable hearings after 2013’s lethal Lac-Mégantic, Quebec oil practice catastrophe, which was adopted by a string of different main oil practice derailments throughout North America that induced giant fires and oil spills. At the moment, there was numerous speak about the best way to enhance rail security and ultimately the Division of Transportation rolled out new however weak laws in 2015. But even these have been subsequently gutted because of business lobbying efforts.A lot is being made from how the rail security proposals coming from Congress in the present day are bipartisan. Nonetheless, some Republicans in Congress are already talking out towards new laws.

Consultant Troy Nehls (R-Texas) informed Politico he didn’t need “extra burdensome laws” in response to the East Palestine catastrophe. Senator John Thune (R-SD) informed The Hill, “We’ll check out what’s being proposed, however a right away fast response heavy on regulation must be considerate and focused.” This can be a constant place for Thune. As DeSmog reported in 2015, “Sen. John Thune (R-SD) was adamant that the proposed new [hazardous train] laws have been ‘unattainable.’”

Historical past exhibits the rail business and its supporters in Congress are more likely to prevail in sustaining the established order. When an exploding oil practice killed 47 individuals and destroyed downtown Lac-Mégantic, Canada, it despatched shockwaves via the highly-connected North American rail world — the oil practice had originated in the USA — and set the U.S. Congress and regulators on alert. Because of the excessive rail visitors crossing the border between Canada and the U.S., the 2 nations work to harmonize their rail laws in order that trains crossing the border meet regulatory necessities in each nations.

However after the Lac-Mégantic catastrophe, even this degree of quick loss wasn’t sufficient to spur significant new security laws for the business. And that tragic actuality means the poisoning of East Palestine is unlikely to end result within the obligatory adjustments that may remove these accidents, which the NTSB has known as “100% preventable.”

Senator Markey seems to be a pupil of such rail historical past. Close to the top of the three hour listening to, he confirmed frustration when Shaw repeated the identical obscure speaking level that “I’m dedicated to doing what’s proper for the group…”

The senator minimize him off, saying:

“What’s proper for the group will then be balanced with — what we are able to see out of your inventory buybacks — by what’s proper for Norfolk Southern. And that’s going to be to sue, to combat, resist full compensation for these households. That’s the sample we’ve seen over the past 10 years in your one-third discount in workforce with its pure concomitant discount in security. We’re not listening to the appropriate issues in the present day. These households need to know long-term are they only going to be left behind. As soon as the cameras transfer on, as soon as the nationwide consideration dies down, you recognize, the place will these households be? I believe they’re going to be within the cross hairs of the accountants of Norfolk Southern saying we’re not going to pay full compensation. That’s why we’re going to remain on this case till everybody in East Palestine is given the justice they deserve.”

This July would be the 10-year anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic catastrophe. In December 2022, Canadian Pacific, one of many railroads implicated within the accident, lastly received its authorized battle to be absolved of all duty, Although a separate rail and several other oil corporations paid right into a CAN $430 million settlement fund for victims, Canadian Pacific’s authorized problem delayed payouts to the households of victims.

And downtown Lac-Mégantic, a once-idyllic city comparable in dimension to East Palestine, stays largely a vacant lot. The price to rebuild the city is estimated to be as a lot as two billion {dollars}, in line with the city’s mayor in 2015. Executives at MMA, the now-defunct U.S.-based rail firm that owned the exploding oil practice, have been fined $50,000, and MMA’s Canadian subsidiary paid $1 million for the oil spill that polluted the lake. 

Maybe now within the U.S., the efforts of this Congress can produce a distinct final result for the individuals of East Palestine, however historical past — and Shaw’s testimony — suggests in any other case.

CORRECTION (3/15/23): Resulting from an enhancing error, the unique model of this text said that the oil practice that derailed in Mosier, Oregon was owned by BNSF. That has been corrected.

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