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Norfolk Southern's CEO is grilled on Capitol Hill over rail industry safety

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The head of Norfolk Southern Railway was back in the hot seat today, being grilled by senators in a hearing focused on the fiery freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, last month. Once again, he said his company takes responsibility and will make things right.

NPR's David Schaper covered that hearing. Hey there, David.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

KELLY: Hey. So let's set up what came before the testimony today...

SCHAPER: Sure.

KELLY: ..From the Norfolk Southern CEO, Alan Shaw, because senators heard first from Ohio's governor, Mike DeWine, and they also heard from a resident of East Palestine. What did they say about how the community is still being affected now - what? - almost seven weeks after the train went off the tracks?

SCHAPER: Yeah. Mary Louise, Misti Allison is a mother of two and says when the train derailed, she could see the huge fireball from her driveway. And then when there was the controlled burn of toxic vinyl chloride a couple of days later, it was like a bomb went off - terrifying. She says even though health officials say the air and water is safe, many there are worried about the potential health effects and the anxiety is real.

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MISTI ALLISON: My 7-year-old has asked me if he is going to die from living in his own home. What do I tell him?

SCHAPER: Allison went on to say that her community now has a scarlet letter on it. People don't want to come there. Businesses are struggling. Home values are plummeting.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine echoed those concerns, and he joined the hearing remotely from the East Palestine High School Library. He said that at 8:55 on that Friday night, February 3, life in East Palestine stopped being normal. And many people there continue to live in fear for their safety and for their futures.

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MIKE DEWINE: Members of the committee, Norfolk Southern has an obligation to restore this community. It was their train, their tracks, their accident. They're responsible for this tragedy.

KELLY: All right, so that's the governor. What did the CEO - what did Alan Shaw say?

SCHAPER: Yeah. Well, as he has said before, he says he's terribly sorry for this environmental disaster. He knows it's been traumatic and that his company is now setting up funds to address long-term concerns, including health care, property values and monitoring the water. To date, Shaw says the railway company has already paid out about $24 million in reimbursements and cleanup costs, among other things. And he says that's just the beginning. But, you know, some people in East Palestine say that it's not always clear what costs are being covered and what won't be, and they want more clarity.

KELLY: OK. So all of this testimony today was unfolding before Congress, which is considering stricter safety regulations for the freight train industry, including some measures that have been opposed by railroads in the past. Is the industry changing its tune at all on that?

SCHAPER: Well, a little bit. Shaw says Norfolk Southern will support legislative efforts to enhance rail safety. But he spoke general terms, and he waffled a bit on specifics. For example, when he was pressed by Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts on whether he'd support legislation requiring two-person train crews at a minimum, he was actually quite evasive.

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ALAN SHAW: Senator, we'll commit to using research and technology to ensure the railroad operates safely.

ED MARKEY: Will you commit to a two-person crew on all trains?

SHAW: Senator, we're a data-driven organization, and I'm not aware of any data that links crew size with safety.

SCHAPER: However, a railroad union safety official disputes that, saying that had there been just a one-person crew on the train that derailed in East Palestine, the results could have been even more disastrous.

KELLY: Thank you, David.

SCHAPER: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's David Schaper. 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.