Secure return to East Palestine, Ohio
Norfolk in the south CEO Alan Shaw told CNBC he thinks it’s safe for families to return to East Palestine, Ohio, nearly three weeks after toxic chemicals were released following a train derailment earlier this month.
When asked by CNBC’s Morgan Brennan if he would bring his kids to town, Shaw said, “Yeah, yeah, I’ve come back a number of times. I drink the water here. I have interacted with the families here.”
The company will continue to help city residents, Shaw said.
On February 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed, igniting a fire that lasted for days. The environmental extent of the derailment could remain unknown for years and further testing may be required. Officials said air levels are safe and the city’s water is free of harmful pollutants, though residents have been skeptical of those assurances.
“Our focus right now is on environmental remediation, cleaning up this site, continuous air monitoring, water monitoring, financially supporting the residents of this community, and investing in this community to allow the community in eastern Palestine to thrive,” Shaw said in an interview that aired on Tuesday.
Earlier Tuesday, the federal environmental protection agency ordered the company to undertake and pay for all cleanup work. Norfolk Southern must clean up all contaminated soil and water resources, reimburse cleaning services to EPA, and attend public meetings at EPA’s request.
A company spokesman told CNBC that Norfolk Southern has been in contact with the agency since the incident and has been following their requests.
Ron Fodo, Ohio EPA Emergency Response officer, looks for signs of fish and also moves the water in Leslie Run Creek to look for chemicals that have settled to the bottom after a train derailment February 20, 2023 in eastern Palestine causing environmental concerns . Ohio.
Michael Swenson | Getty Images
Three days after the derailment, the company’s independent consultant and the Ohio EPA recommended a unified controlled release order to burn toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens.
“The fact that we knew at this point that the pressure relief valves on the cars had failed and temperatures were rising caused our independent expert to become very concerned about the possibility of an uncontrolled explosion releasing noxious gas and shrapnel into a populated community would shoot,” Shaw said.
Air surveillance found no traces of toxic chemicals, officials said, although Shaw acknowledges “how it might scare people.”
Ohio opened a new health clinic on Tuesday to address mounting reports of headaches, nausea and rashes in eastern Palestine. Concerned residents also reported dead fish and chickens, as authorities said it was safe to return. Medical teams from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Health and Human Services are expected in the community as early as this week.
A “traumatic experience”
Shaw said air surveillance was installed within an hour of the derailment, and water surveillance was set up several hours afterward. He said all tests for air and water came back clean, but he said the community can have additional air and water tests done in their homes.
“If people have symptoms that they’re not used to, I would strongly encourage them to see a trusted doctor,” Shaw said, acknowledging it was a “traumatic experience.”
Tests have found no evidence of carcinogens including vinyl chloride in the environment, officials said. However, there is a possibility that the full effect will only become apparent in years. Shaw said some researchers said it wasn’t a problem and testing would continue in the future.
Shaw said the company has so far removed about 450 cubic yards of contaminated soil and saved about 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water. He said the company will continue to “do what’s right for this community” and see recovery efforts through to the end. He did not set a time frame.
Shaw said it’s safe for families to return to the community as environmental cleanup is ongoing with the Ohio EPA. He said Norfolk Southern has reimbursed or promised a $6.5 million “down payment” to East Palestine and will continue to provide financial support to residents.
The company previously offered residents “inconvenience” checks for $1,000, but a Cleveland attorney warned residents that those checks would persuade residents to waive any future claims against the company. Shaw denied the attorney’s claims in the interview, after the company publicly stated that conducting tests does not relieve Norfolk Southern of liability.
“I know you’re hurt. I know they are afraid. I know they are confused. They’re looking for information and who they can trust,” Shaw said.
Shaw said Norfolk Southern is fully cooperating with the NTSB and FRA to find the root cause of the derailment. He avoided discussing safety footage, which shows a wheel emitting sparks about 20 miles before the derailment.
“We’ll be here tomorrow. We will be here in a year. We’ll be here in five years. We’re going to do what’s right for this community and help this community come back on its feet and help this community thrive,” Shaw said.
respond to criticism
Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to Norfolk Southern on Sunday warning that the company must show “unequivocal support for the people” of eastern Palestine.
Buttigieg wrote that Norfolk Southern and other railroad companies “have spent millions of dollars in court and lobbied members of Congress to oppose sane safety regulations, stopping some outright and restricting the scope of others.”
Some companies have adopted precisely planned railroads that involve running longer trains and reducing costs and staff to create a more effective network – and potentially generate profits.
In response, Shaw said Norfolk Southern invests over $1 billion a year in “science-based solutions,” including track, equipment and technology maintenance.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a CNN interview that the railroads “just aren’t investing like they should, in vehicle safety and in the railroads themselves,” leading to layoffs and stock buybacks.
“It’s pretty clear that our safety culture and investments in safety didn’t prevent this accident,” Shaw replied. “We have to look at that and see what we’re doing differently and what we can do better.”