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Senate to hold first hearing probing train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

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(WASHINGTON) — Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw will face a Senate panel on Thursday as Washington lawmakers hold their first hearing on railroad safety about a month after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.

“I am deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities and I am determined to make it right,” Shaw will tell a Senate panel while promising, “I pledge that we won’t be finished until we make it right.”

Senators leading the hearing say they’re on a fact-finding mission and committed to working on a bipartisan basis to ensure that Norfolk Southern is held financially responsible for damages in East Palestine and surrounding communities.

“To me, our bipartisan hearing tomorrow should abide by what we call the golden rule: and that’s the idea we ought to treat other people the way we want to be treated. Love thy neighbor as thyself,” Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Tom Carper, D-Del., said Wednesday. “If this was our community, East Palestine involved our family members of our family or businesses that we were involved with, how would we want to be treated? And we would want to know that everything that is being done in response to this incident can be done.”

“The people of East Palestine need to know that we care that somebody cares about what has happened and what the response going forward is and also what the response was past,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the committee’s ranking member. “So we are going to be investigating the environmental and policy impacts in the committee we are going to look at local state and federal response and ongoing efforts in the area to protect.”

Capito added: “Norfolk Southern will be held completely liable and no expense should be spared.”

Carper and Capito both said they expect to learn more about what safety measures failed that caused the incident, what actions were taken in the immediate aftermath and weeks since the derailment, and what more can be done.

They’ll aim to put on a bipartisan front — but partisan disagreements about the effectiveness of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation in handling the fallout will likely emerge as the hearing progresses.

On a call with reporters on Wednesday previewing the hearing, Carper and Capito seemed fundamentally at odds over the EPA’s response.

As Carper thanked the agency for what he called a swift and consistent response, Capito raised what she saw as critical “communication errors” she hopes will get their time in the spotlight.

“Personally, I think the EPA failed on the risk communication,” Capito said. “We are going to ask why did it take the EPA administrator three weeks before he actually drank the water. He was telling everybody that it was safe. Why did it take a month to establish a response center?”

Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance, who introduced bipartisan railroad safety legislation last week, are also scheduled to appear as witnesses on Thursday along with representatives from the EPA, Ohio EPA, Beaver County Department of Emergency Services and Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission.

The hearing comes on the heels of a second derailment on Saturday and after the National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday that it would launch a special investigation of Norfolk Southern’s safety and culture. The last time the NTSB made such a move was in 2014, when it investigated Metro North for several significant accidents.

“Given the number and significance of recent Norfolk Southern accidents, the NTSB also urges the company to take immediate action today to review and assess its safety practices, with the input of employees and others, and implement necessary changes to improve safety,” the NTSB said.

Responding to the investigation, Shaw told ABC News in a statement on Monday that “moving forward, we are going to rebuild our safety culture from the ground up.”

“We are going to invest more in safety. This is not who we are, it is not acceptable, and it will not continue,” Shaw said.

Earlier this week, Norfolk Southern also reported a fatal injury of one of their conductors — in addition to several precious fatal accidents of their employees in recent years.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer laid out questions on Wednesday he said Shaw will need to answer at the hearing, like “how the railroad addresses rail safety inspections in the future, whether they’ll commit to having their conductors and rail employees undergo additional safety and response training, and how they will help communities if God forbid, another accident occurs,” Schumer said.

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