Norfolk Southern’s $4m-a-year CEO dodges question on spending millions to lobby against new safety rule

US rail freight giant Norfolk Southern is continuing to face tough questions in the wake of the Ohio train derailment on 3 February, which saw 51 cars crash off the tracks in the small town of East Palestine, 20 of which were carrying toxic chemicals.

The accident, subsequently attributed by investigators to a broken axle, forced emergency responders to conduct a controlled burn of some of the materials, which sent a black plume of smoke billowing above the town and forced the temporary evacuation of some 2,000 residents from their homes.

As the cleanup operation continues almost three weeks on, so does the blame game, with Norfolk Southern under pressure to pay compensation to locals, conservatives keen to attack what they consider a lacklustre federal response and Donald Trump arriving in East Palestine in advance of Joe Biden on 22 February for what former transport secretary Ray LaHood branded a “political stunt”.

Norfolk Southern has made a major financial commitment to the community and its CEO Alan H Shaw has been keen to get out in front of media cameras to apologise and make reassurances.

However, Mr Shaw – who earned a total salary of almost $4.5m in 2021, according to the company’s latest proxy statement – was less than forthcoming when asked by Geoff Bennett of PBS New Hour on Tuesday about his company’s track record of lobbying against federal safety measures for the freight industry.

One example of this was Norfolk Southern’s support for Mr Trump’s 2017 repeal of a Barack Obama administration requirement that freight trains carrying hazardous materials be fitted with electronically-controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes, an issue transport secretary Pete Buttigieg alluded to in a stern letter to Mr Shaw over the weekend urging him to “demonstrate unequivocal support for the people” of East Palestine.

Steven Ditmeyer, a former top official at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), has told investigative news outlet The Lever that the severity of the Ohio crash might have been aggravated by the lack of ECP brakes.

During the PBS interview, Mr Bennet asked Mr Shaw about another rule change his company had opposed: “In November and December, Norfolk Southern met with federal regulators and pushed back against this proposed rule that would have, in most cases, mandated at least two crew members on trains. Why did Norfolk Southern spend so much money, millions upon millions of dollars, lobbying against it?”

The executive sidestepped the question by answering: “What we’re really interested in is solution-based safety rules, and we’re very focused on following the science.

“And with respect to this accident, the National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] is, you know, they’re in charge of this investigation. And I’m very much looking forward to the results of their investigation. Once we have that, we’re going to sit down and we’re going to figure out what we could have done better. As you can imagine, every day since this occurred, I’ve been asking myself, what could we have done better? What could we have done to prevent this?

“So we are fully cooperating with the NTSB and the FRA finding out what happened here. And we’re going to make Norfolk Southern and the industry as a whole a safer railroad.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Mr Shaw told Mr Bennett that Norfolk Southern would maintain a presence in East Palestine for, “As long as it takes… We’re going to see this thing through.”

He pledged that the company would continue to invest in the environmental cleanup, adding: “We have made a lot of progress. We’ve got air monitoring, water monitoring. We’re coordinating with the Ohio EPA [Environmental Protection Agency].

“We’re continuing to provide financial assistance for the citizens of this community. So far, we’ve either reimbursed or committed $6.5m to the citizens of this community. And that’s a down payment. And we’re going to invest in this community for the long haul to help this community recover and help this community thrive.”

Mr Bennett picked him up on that by saying: “When you say the $6.5m is a down payment, as you know, the average income for an East Palestine family is less than $45,000 a year. We’ve talked to people who say they need Norfolk Southern to pay their medical expenses, to pay their moving expensive expenses, and to pay for independent testing of wells and soil in the air. Is that something that you would commit to?

Mr Shaw was elusive there too, answering: “We set up a lot of testing within an hour of the derailment. We had air testing within a couple of hours of the derailment. We’ve had water testing. There is independent testing going on right now with the Ohio EPA and with local health officials.

“And, you know, there’s been hundreds of tests and there have been thousands of data points and they’ve all come back with the same result that says the air and the water are clean and we’re setting up long term monitoring and we intend to be here for the long haul and continue to support this community.”