Both of Ohio’s senators took aim at the Norfolk Southern railway’s handling of an East Palestine, Ohio, derailment Thursday as CEO Alan Shaw testified before the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), were present as witnesses rather than members of the Senate panel.
Vance criticized both Norfolk Southern and the federal response, and specifically invoked the railway safety reform bill he and Brown have co-sponsored. The measure would, among other provisions, give the federal government rather than railroads oversight over the heat sensors on railroad tracks.
A heat sensor registered as severely overheating just before the East Palestine derailment.
Vance said his GOP colleagues have discussed the bill “in complete good faith” but blasted a “particular slice of people” within the conservative movement “who seem to think that any public safety enhancement for the rail industry is a violation of the free market.”
Vance called such claims a “farce,” pointing to the federal subsidies and legal carve-outs the rail industry receives and the bipartisan measure Congress passed in December to block rail unions from striking.
“You cannot claim special government privileges and then resist basic public safety,” the freshman Ohio Republican said, going on to suggest that Republicans could not sincerely present themselves as aligned with the working class if they “do the bidding of a massive industry that is in bed with big government.”
Brown took aim at Norfolk Southern’s safety record, noting multiple accidents involving the company since December 2021, three of which resulted in worker deaths.
The railroad, Brown said, has “followed the Wall Street business model” by hoarding profits at the expense of safety measures, spending billions last year on stock buybacks alone.
“If Norfolk Southern had paid a little more attention to safety and a little less attention to profits, had cared a little more about the Ohioans along its tracks and a little less about its executives and shareholders, these accidents would not have been as bad for maybe not happened at all,” Brown said.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, who agreed to testify at the same hearing, issued an apology earlier Thursday morning. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asserted its authority under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act to require the company to cover all costs associated with recovery and cleanup.