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Norfolk Southern CEO to testify Thursday at Senate hearing on Ohio train derailment

Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, remain on fire Feb. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

 (CNN) — A powerful Senate panel will hold a hearing Thursday on the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle call for answers and action in the wake of the disaster.

The hearing is taking place after the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train on February 3 that released toxic chemicals into the air, water, and soil of East Palestine — an incident that has received national attention and fueled outcry among residents who have reported headaches, coughing, and other ailments after the fiery crash.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will convene the hearing at 10 a.m. ET. The panel has announced a slate of witnesses, including Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw as well as several senators who represent Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Norfolk Southern CEO to appear at hearing

The most high-profile witness at the hearing is expected to be Shaw.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday said in remarks on the floor that at the hearing he expects, “Mr. Shaw to lay out precisely what steps Norfolk Southern is taking to prevent future disasters like East Palestine.”

Citing the “number and significance of recent Norfolk Southern accidents,” federal investigators said Tuesday they will open a special investigation into the railway’s safety culture.

The company and other major freight railroads have vowed new safety measures in response to the toxic train wreck that ravaged the town of East Palestine. The railroads say they will revamp a hot bearing detector network. “Hot bearing” or “hot box” detectors use infrared sensors to record the temperatures of railroad bearings as trains pass by.

While Norfolk Southern has pledged more than $21 million so far in help for the communities affected by the derailment, that is only a small fraction of its profits, and the billions it is giving to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases. Shaw is likely to face questions about the company’s continued share repurchase plans in the wake of the disaster, questions that he dodged at a recent CNN Town Hall on the crash.

Shaw told CNN in February that “Norfolk Southern is committed to the community and citizens of East Palestine.”

“We’re going to be here today, we’re going to be here tomorrow, we’re going to be here a year from now and we’re going to be here five years from now,” he said.

Senators and other witnesses to come before panel

The hearing will also feature several senators as witnesses: Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat.

It’s rare, though it does happen, for members of Congress to testify at a congressional hearing. The senators may be able to provide insight into what they are hearing from their constituents and communities affected by fallout from the incident.

According to the committee, the other witnesses are: Debra Shore, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency Region 5, Anne Vogel, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Richard Harrison, executive director and chief engineer of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, and Eric Brewer, director and chief of hazardous materials response for Beaver County Department of Emergency Services.

A bipartisan legislative push

In the wake of the East Palestine crash, a bipartisan group of senators has proposed a new bill aimed at shoring up rail safety.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 has been introduced by Vance and other Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri, as well as Brown, Casey and fellow Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.

Brown told CNN’s Erin Burnett on “OutFront” that he has discussed moving the bill with Schumer, as well as spoken with Senate Commerce Chairwoman Maria Cantwell and Sen. Gary Peters, who chairs the Commerce subcommittee overseeing surface transportation policy.

The bill includes a number of provisions to boost safety procedures to prevent future incidents, including “new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride,” a requirement for advance notice from railways to state emergency response officials about what their trains are carrying, requirements to prevent blocked railway crossings and new rules for train size and weight, according to a statement from the senators.

The legislation would also require two person crews on most long-distance freight trains. There are no such regulations or laws requiring that currently, only provisions of existing labor agreements with the unions representing crew members. The railroads say they will oppose that change in the law and that they will continue to push to have only the engineer, and not a conductor, riding in the cab of locomotives.

Future congressional oversight

In addition to Thursday’s Senate hearing, CNN reported last week that a series of House Republican committees are plotting to launch investigations into the toxic train disaster in East Palestine, according to multiple committee aides.

GOP lawmakers are vowing to use their oversight power to dig into what they describe as the Biden administration’s flawed response to the train wreck. They have also left the door open to holding hearings on the subject, including potentially bringing in Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to testify publicly, the aides said, though such decisions have not yet been made.