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Cantwell grills Norfolk Southern CEO, highlights Washington derailment in rail safety hearing

March 22, 2023 Updated Wed., March 22, 2023 at 8:32 p.m.

The first of two derailed BNSF engines is put upright last week on the Swinomish Reservation near Anacortes, Wash. Mount Baker stands in the background.  (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)
The first of two derailed BNSF engines is put upright last week on the Swinomish Reservation near Anacortes, Wash. Mount Baker stands in the background. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)

WASHINGTON – Senators on Wednesday grilled the CEO of Norfolk Southern Railway about the company’s February derailment that released toxic chemicals into East Palestine, Ohio, and spurred a bipartisan effort to reform the nation’s rail safety rules.

Pressed by members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation during a hearing, CEO Alan Shaw said his company supports some provisions of a bill introduced by Ohio’s senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican J.D. Vance, aimed at improving rail safety. In a rare show of bipartisanship, Brown testified as a witness in favor of the bill alongside Ohio’s GOP governor, Mike DeWine, and an East Palestine resident.

“This preventable accident has put a scarlet letter on our town,” said Misti Allison, a mother from East Palestine. “People don’t want to come here. Businesses are struggling. Our home values are plummeting. Even if we wanted to leave, we couldn’t. Who would buy our homes? There were over 1,000 train derailments last year, and the expansion of the petrochemical industry means that more trains carrying toxic chemicals will put more families at risk.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who chairs the committee, called for stricter regulations that would apply to more than just the Ohio derailment, which a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board found was likely caused by an overheated wheel bearing.

“We have to have minimum safety standards,” Cantwell said. “And this committee is going to make sure that we get there, because we’re not going to let people just keep putting money in the bank and thinking that you can shortchange safety. We can’t shortchange Ms. Allison and we can’t shortchange East Palestine.”

Cantwell also called attention to the March 16 derailment of a BNSF freight train on the Swinomish Reservation in Skagit County. That crash spilled about 3,100 gallons of diesel fuel near Padilla Bay, about 2,500 gallons of which couldn’t be recovered and seeped into the groundwater, the Skagit Valley Herald reported.

“This hearing is not only, though, about the East Palestine derailment,” Cantwell said, going on to describe the derailment on the Swinomish Reservation. “These are important issues for all of America, and we look forward to working in a bipartisan basis on this problem.”

The rail industry has staged a lobbying blitz to blunt that bipartisan reform effort, which may find more success in the GOP-controlled House. On Tuesday, Politico reported that BNSF Railway recently hired a former top aide to Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, the Republican chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, as a lobbyist.

Graves’ Democratic counterpart on that panel, Rep. Rick Larsen, represents the area where the BNSF train derailed.

In his opening remarks, Vance took aim at what he called misrepresentations by industry lobbyists of the bill he and Vance have cosponsored along with the senators from Pennsylvania, whose border is near East Palestine, Bob Casey and John Fetterman. Reminding railway companies that Congress intervened in December to avert a rail strike, the Ohio Republican said the industry can’t have it both ways.

“You cannot on the one hand beg the government to bail you out of a labor dispute three months ago and then say that it’s ‘big government’ to have proper safety standards,” Vance said. “It’s a ridiculous argument. It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Norfolk Southern has voluntarily implemented some new safety measures in response to the East Palestine derailment, but Wednesday’s hearing signaled bipartisan support in the Senate for federal action. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers from Ohio introduced their own rail safety bill last week.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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