A committee of U.S. lawmakers are expected to hear testimony Wednesday morning on the safety record of Norfolk Southern, the Atlanta-based railroad operator, whose train derailed last month in East Palestine, Ohio.
The hearing comes just days after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan told reporters that he believed Norfolk Southern should be moving faster to remove contaminated soil from East Palestine more than a month after the Feb. 3 train derailment, and that at the current rate, the site would take roughly three months to clean up.
The derailment near the rural town of 4,700 people along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border resulted in massive black plumes of smoke and concerns about air, water and soil quality. Five of the derailed cars contained the highly toxic carcinogen, vinyl chloride, which Norfolk Southern officials released and burned off to prevent an explosion.
Headaches, coughing, burning of the skin:Symptoms Ohio residents have experienced after toxic train derailment
Federal investigators have new concerns:East Palestine train derailment involved older equipment
Who is speaking at the Senate hearing?
The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will hear from Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, U.S. Republican Sen. J.D. Vance, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and a resident of East Palestine.
Other witnesses include Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw and Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.
EPA orders appropriate disposal of waste
The EPA said Tuesday that so far, 6,801 tons of contaminated soil and 7.4 million gallons of liquid wastewater have been transported out of East Palestine to designated waste facilities.
Regan said the agency told Shaw in a letter Monday that the EPA expects Norfolk Southern to find appropriate disposal facilities and, as necessary, take legal action to enforce contracts with waste disposal companies or to gain access to EPA disposal facilities. Otherwise, Regan said, the company may face civil penalties and potential legal action.
Regan noted that some states, such as Oklahoma, have been turning away or trying to impede waste shipments from East Palestine and that the agency has alerted states of their legal obligations and notified every state environmental regulator across the country that states cannot unilaterally stop the shipments.
“There is nothing special or out of the ordinary about this waste, other than the fact that it’s coming from a town that has suffered deeply,” Regan said. “This is impermissible and this is unacceptable.”
Norfolk Southern hit by dozens of lawsuits, including from Ohio
Earlier this month, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced the state would sue Norfolk Southern for the derailment and to force the company to pay for costs incurred by the state, including emergency response, economic damage and harm to natural resources.
The federal lawsuit accuses the company of “recklessly endangering” the health of East Palestine residents and Ohio’s natural resources when the derailment caused the release of 1 million gallons of hazardous chemicals. The lawsuit seeks to hold Norfolk Southern financially responsible and asks the court to order the company to conduct future soil and groundwater monitoring and prohibit Norfolk Southern from disposing contaminated soil at the derailment site and from polluting Ohio waters.
The lawsuit cites 58 violations of federal and state environmental laws and Ohio Common Law. It also cites the company’s escalating accident rate, which it says has nearly doubled over the past 10 years. At least 20 Norfolk Southern derailments since 2015 have included chemical discharges, according to the lawsuit.
The railroad operator is facing roughly two dozen lawsuits filed by residents and businesses who say the derailment impacted them. Shaw has repeatedly pledged, including at a separate U.S. Senate hearing earlier this month, that Norfolk Southern is committed to ensuring East Palestine is safe.
NTSB examines pressure relief devices
The NTSB is continuing to investigate the derailment, which occurred moments after crew members were notified of an overheated wheel bearing and tried to stop.
The agency said Tuesday in a news release that its investigators examined and tested the pressure relief devices they removed from the five tank cars carrying vinyl chloride and found that some of them may have been compromised.
The pressure relief devices are supposed to help regulate internal tank pressure by releasing small amounts of material and closing back up once conditions return to normal.
Per the manufacturer’s specifications, one of the installed devices had an internal spring that was coated with aluminum, but that metal “is not compatible with vinyl chloride,” the NTSB said. Investigators found no evidence melted aluminum from the protective housing covers on the pressure relief devices entered the tanks themselves.
Senators introduce rail safety bill
It addresses, in part, a request by DeWine that Congress examine how trains are classified when transporting dangerous chemicals through states. The Norfolk Southern train that derailed was not considered a high-hazard flammable train, because it didn’t meet a technical definition requiring a certain number of railcars carrying such cargo, and so the company didn’t need to notify state regulators about its passage.
Shaw, Norfolk Southern’s CEO is expected to speak in favor of such federal legislation, according to his prepared remarks provided in advance of the hearing. In the written comments, Shaw urges Congress to go even further in certain areas, such as “even stricter standards for tank car design.”
The federal bill, as introduced, would also:
- Require trains carrying hazardous materials to give advance notice to states, even if they aren’t high-hazardous flammable trains.
- Require trains carrying hazmat cargo be scanned by hot bearing detectors every 10 miles.
- Update inspection rules to ensure they are conducted by qualified railcar inspectors at regular intervals.
- Require two-person crews.
- Increase the maximum fine for rail carriers that break the rules to 1% of their annual operating income, instead of $225,000.
- Increase HAZMAT registration fees paid by railroads to fund grants for emergency response training.
Contributing: Haley BeMiller, USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau