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Norfolk Southern boss Alan Shaw says he's committed to cleaning up East Palestine, helping residents

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, second from right, testifies before a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on improving rail safety in response to the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 22, 2023.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during a hearing on improving rail safety in response to the East Palestine train derailment on March 22, 2023.

More than three months after the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, environmental remediation is still ongoing, residents are still struggling with the potential health impacts and people are worried about the future of the community. Norfolk Southern is going to make things right in East Palestine, President and CEO Alan Shaw said.

The train that derailed on Feb. 3 was carrying several hazardous materials, including butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride. After the derailment, the vinyl chloride became unstable and was vented and burned into the environment. Air and water testing have been ongoing by the U.S. and Ohio Environmental Protection Agencies, which have consistently found them both to be safe. Norfolk Southern has been footing the bill for the environmental cleanup, due to pressure from politicians and an agreement with the U.S. EPA.

A black plume and fireball rise over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar
A black plume and fireball rise over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.

"As we said from day one, we're going to be guided by one principle: We're going to make it right in East Palestine," Shaw said. "And we're going to do more than less, and that includes the environmental remediation. And that includes the community assistance, and that also includes investing in the future of East Palestine and the surrounding area to help it thrive."

Lots of progress has been made toward remediation, as the company works closely with the U.S. and Ohio EPAs, Shaw said. The company has moved more than 43,000 tons of soil and 17 million gallons of water off site, he said.

Norfolk Southern will be in East Palestine as long as the environmental remediation takes, Shaw said.

"What we're also doing is we're setting up a long term fund under the direction of Attorney General [Dave] Yost to do long-term water monitoring, as well," Shaw said. This is one of the biggest long-term concerns Shaw has heard.

Supporting the community
Immediately after the derailment, Norfolk Southern founded a family assistance center in East Palestine to act as a resource for questions and problems and to provide money, air tests and other necessities to residents. More than 8,600 families have been helped at the center, and Norfolk Southern has committed more than $34 million to the community, Shaw said.

"Just like the environmental remediation, that's just a start. Our investment in that community goes beyond writing a check. Certainly that financial component is really, really important," Shaw said. "It's also personal involvement. As I talk to community members, that's what they want, as well. They want to make sure that Norfolk Southern is going to have a physical presence."

Shaw said he's been hosting regular meetings with residents to hear what they need, and he said he uses their input to decide how the company will help.

Still, many community members have expressed frustration with the family assistance center, saying it doesn't go far enough to financially support them. Some say they've been turned away because they live too far away from the derailment site. Others say they can't get financial support to relocate from East Palestine.

"There's no real hard and fast rule," Shaw said. "Generally, it's folks who are in and around the evacuation zone, which also extends into Pennsylvania."

Lack of trust
Although the EPA has maintained that East Palestine's air and water are safe, many residents remain distrustful of the test results, as they continue to struggle with health symptoms they say are related to the derailment. The test results don't match their lived experiences, and some have gone out of their way to fund independent testing on their property. Norfolk Southern is not considering providing funding for residents to do their own environmental testing, Shaw said. He said he trusts the work of the U.S. and Ohio EPAs.

"We're working really closely with the experts," Shaw said, "and I've got a lot of confidence that the EPA and [Ohio EPA Director] Anne Vogel and the Ohio EPA have really high standards."

Safety standards
The East Palestine train derailment has shed a light on the freight industry's history of safety negligence, union workers say. The accident has led to strong bipartisan support for federal rail safety measures, including the Railway Safety Act in the Senate and the RAIL Act in the House. Norfolk Southern has one of the highest accident rates nationally, and the company has seen a rise in accidents in the past five years, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration.

"We can do better, and Norfolk Southern is a safe railroad," Shaw maintained. "Last year the number of derailments on Norfolk Southern was the lowest in two decades. We can do better."

In 2022, Norfolk Southern had 112 train derailments, compared to 156 in 2021 and 140 in 2020. However, the rate of accidents per million train miles has crept up over the past decade, from 2.014 in 2013 to 3.662 in 2022.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.