Sen. Sherrod Brown pushes rail safety bill following another Ohio derailment


(NEW YORK) — A Norfolk Southern freight train derailed Saturday in Springfield, Ohio, marking the fourth rail incident in the state in the last couple of months, including the toxic crash in East Palestine, Ohio.

Although the company said there were no hazardous materials in the latest incident, elected officials in the area have expressed more frustration with Norfolk Southern and called for better safety protocols.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown spoke with GMA 3 about the incident and his legislation, the Railway Safety Act.

GMA 3: Joining us now is the senior senator from Ohio, Sherrod Brown. Senator, thanks for taking the time. Let’s jump right in to this because we have a lot to talk to you about. Begin by telling us the latest that you can share with us about the second Norfolk Southern derailment, which is near Springfield, Ohio.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN: That’s the fourth derailment in five months. Steubenville, Sandusky, of course, the most disastrous East Palestine in eastern Ohio and now Springfield. And I have some questions about Springfield that there was some residue in the cars. I want to make sure that that’s not a problem for local residents. But I mean, start with this: This is a company immensely profitable. They’ve done billions of dollars in stock buybacks. In the last couple of years alone…they’ve laid off a third of their workforce.

They’ve compromised on safety. The workers don’t have enough time to do the thorough inspections they should do. So companies like this do the kind of damage they did for, again, four derailments in five months in my state.

What it’s done to East Palestine, it’s going to take tens of millions of dollars to fix what they did, and people there are still suffering. [They’re] coming back into their homes, testing their water, testing the soil, testing the air, the damage to farmers and local businesses. So they still have a lot to answer for.

GMA 3: And while this new one is much different than what happened in East Palestine, you were just talking about that no hazardous chemicals were leaked. You met with residents of East Palestine last week. What stood out to you from that discussion? Are you satisfied with the cleanup efforts that are going on there?

BROWN: No, I’m not satisfied. I’m not satisfied that this company is going to change its behavior. I’m not satisfied that they have really listened to local residents whose lives are upended. They just want to get their lives back to normal. Norfolk Southern says they’re going to pay for everything. They said they’re going to pay for hotel stays and testing and damages. But one of the fears I have is what these chemicals mean for somebody two years, five years down the road.

And I compare that to what Congress did on the PACT Act, for the hundreds of thousands of veterans who were exposed to these football field-sized burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and breathed all this stuff in. We passed a law, the PACT Act, that simply says if you have one of 23 illnesses that we’ve identified in that law, you get immediate care at the VA without having to get a lawyer and suing and all of that.

I don’t know if that’s what we’re going to need to do in East Palestine. If we do, if we write a law like that or we’re going to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the damage they did.

GMA 3: And Senator, we’re getting word today that Norfolk Southern announced and they announced it today that all of its trains over 10,000 feet will now use distributed power units, which will be remotely controlled and help with acceleration and braking. That’s what they have done. You have recently introduced your own suggested changes to this bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023. So I’m curious, what would that legislation do? And do you think it would have prevented what happened in East Palestine?

BROWN: Well, I don’t know if it would have prevented it, certainly would have mitigated the damage. It wouldn’t have been nearly this, this is damaging to a local community. Think about a couple of things. One hundred and fifty cars in East Palestine, many of them jumped the tracks. In Springfield, as you just reported, more than 200 cars.

That’s one of the things our bill does is create, would require a two-person crew. Norfolk Southern wanted to have a one-person crew on these trains. It also says it also mandates when these trains come into the state, they’ve got to notify the state authorities if they’re carrying hazardous materials so the state can then inform local firefighters to be ready in case something happens.

It improves the safety of wheel bearings, which has been the cause of more of these accidents than anything else. It ups the fines. The average fine Norfolk Southern paid in the last few years is $10,000 for safety violations. That’s pennies on the dollar of a company that gives $6, $7 billion in stock buybacks.

So we will do a number of those things in this bill. And Sen. [J.D.] Vance, the Republican sponsor, and I and then Sen. [Bob] Casey in Pennsylvania, we have three Republicans, three Democrats. As soon as I return this week…we’re going to work to get this bill through the Senate.

GMA 3: Now we hear you criticizing Norfolk Southern. You’re mentioning the stock buybacks. The CEO of Norfolk Southern, Alan Shaw, is due to testify before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday. Now, you’re not actually on that committee, but what would you like to see them press the company on?

BROWN: Well, I’m testifying too when the CEO does. I want him to promise to a congressional committee, to a Senate committee that he’s going to do all these things that he is going to notify when trains come into the state, that he’s committing to a two-person crew, that he will not object, that he will even support bigger fines, that he will pay, that they will reimburse all these residents.

Five thousand people live in that town. But we think the damage could be to farmers. A farmer told me that she has 25-herd of beef cattle. She’s getting calls from regular customers that buy a side of beef, half a beef. Is it safe this year? I don’t know. She doesn’t know. The customers don’t know.

So Norfolk Southern needs to commit especially to long-term health problems that might come to people in this community. They need to commit to pay for that, to bring this community back to normal as much as it possibly can.

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