Will Norfolk Southern’s political spending help shield it from consequences?
Aerial view of the train derailment wreckage in East Palestine. (Screenshot from NTSB B-roll recorded Feb. 5, 2023)
Officials are all singing from the same hymnal. Republican and Democrat; state, local and federal; all agree Norfolk Southern will be, must be, held accountable for the train accident in East Palestine. Wednesday, U.S. Sens. J.D. Vance, R-OH and Sherrod Brown, D-OH, put pen to paper, introducing legislation for rail safety.
But the company has done a pretty good job of getting what it wants in Ohio.
Its lobbying and campaign spending sketches a web of political connections and points of influence. For now, Norfolk is taking a trip behind the woodshed. But in the months to come, those political relationships may help insulate it from stiff penalties and regulations.
The company has poured about $98,000 into state races since 2018. The biggest recipient was Gov. Mike DeWine. Norfolk gave $14,000 to the governor’s campaign as well as $15,000 across his transition funds in 2018 and 2022.
The company has also cut sizable checks to a who’s who of Statehouse power brokers. Senate President Matt Huffman received $6,000. Sen. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, got $4,500.
Norfolk Southern backed all three of the Republican members jockeying for speaker, but none of them received as much as state Rep. Bill Seitz. The GOP stalwart is among the chamber’s most powerful lawmakers, and his home city of Cincinnati is in the midst of negotiations to sell a publicly owned rail line to Norfolk Southern.
At the state level the vast majority of the company’s contributions go to Republicans. At the federal level, though, Norfolk’s largesse can be a bit harder to predict. In the 2020 and 2022 campaign cycles, for instance, the company broke with recent precedent and backed Democrats more heavily.
Among Ohio’s congressional delegation, the company has given widely. Every Republican Representative, save Reps. Max Miller and Brad Wenstrup, have received contributions at one time or another. The biggest sitting recipient is Rep. Dave Joyce, R-OH, with $22,000. Rep. Troy Balderson, R-OH, however, is right behind him with $20,000 despite serving five years fewer. Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-OH, has received $10,750 and relative newcomer Rep. Shontel Brown, D-OH, has already gotten $7,500.
Rep. Emilia Sykes, D-OH, received Norfolk Southern contributions during her time in state government, but not in Congress.
In the U.S. Senate, Republican J.D. Vance hasn’t received a dime, but his predecessor Rob Portman got $15,000 over his 12-year career. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, got $2,000, but not since 1998 when he was serving in the U.S. House.
In addition to directly supporting favored candidates, Norfolk spends on lobbyists to influence the course of legislation. In Ohio, they employ a well-connected firm called The Success Group. Gov. DeWine’s former legislative director Dan McCarthy led the firm prior to joining the administration.
As a lobbyist, McCarthy worked on behalf of FirstEnergy and set up the dark money group Partners for Progress. Prosecutors allege Partners for Progress funneled money to groups controlled by former House speaker Larry Householder as part of the multi-million dollar racketeering scheme.
The Success Group began representing Norfolk Southern in 2009. In that time the company’s lobbyists have repeatedly fended off legislation imposing minimum staffing requirements or penalties for blocked crossings. One of Norfolk’s current lobbyists is married to Vance’s former communications director.
Senator @JDVance1: What East Palestine will need to get back on its feet
"East Palestine will need its own version of the Paycheck Protection Program to protect workers and businesses who lost their livelihoods because of the decisions of others."https://t.co/hqej4IXeT6
— Senator Vance Press Office (@SenVancePress) February 26, 2023
Despite those connections, lawmakers have insisted they can and will hold the railroad accountable.
“We believe that the railroad should continue to pay and we’re going to insist that they pay whatever damages have been caused,” DeWine said on Feb. 17. “The railroad is responsible for those damages.”
Sens. Vance and Brown have both made similar arguments and promised to advance legislation to improve rail safety. Wednesday, they released a wide-ranging Rail Safety Act of 2023.
The measure would establish minimum crew sizes, impose regular inspections and increase fines for wrongdoing. The measure would also limit train size and weight as well as create standards for wayside detectors which scan passing trains to identify issues like hot bearings. Among the changes, the act would require detectors every 10 miles. They’re currently installed every 25 miles, on average, but federal agencies don’t regulate their frequency, calibration or maintenance.
Another four U.S. senators from both sides of the aisle, including both senators from Pennsylvania, have signed on as co-sponsors. Still, the course ahead isn’t smooth — Politico reports House lawmakers have already cautioned against advancing “burdensome” regulations.
Separately, Vance has written about flooding financial support to local homeowners, schools, and employers. Vance argued Congress should even consider a local version of the paycheck protection program. He has also joined fellow U.S. Senator Brown in calling for long-term health monitoring and additional environmental testing for dioxins.
In the Ohio Statehouse, as well, lawmakers eagerly call for accountability. But unlike Congress, they face significant limits on the scope of their authority.
In a House Homeland Security Committee, John Esterly from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen explained state or local governments can act so long as they don’t contradict federal regulations or restrict business “severely.”
“I think you could make regulations within the state dealing with say information sharing that doesn’t necessarily restrict the movement of hazardous materials,” Esterly said. “But to your point, you are going to be kind of up against the wall when it comes to major regulatory reform.”
And based on Ohio Department of Public Safety assistant director Karen Huey’s description, the reporting requirements rail companies do face are minimal.
Even if the train in East Palestine met the designation for “high hazard,” Norfolk wouldn’t necessarily have to provide specific reporting. Huey explained there are seven railroads that report on high hazard loads in Ohio.
“Some of them report annually, some report monthly and some report weekly,” Huey said. “The notification requirements are a little general. They make an estimate of what they think is going to travel through Ohio.”
“They identify what’s going to be on the trains and the routes that they will take, but again, it’s an estimate,” Huey explained. That would change under Brown and Vance’s legislation, which requires advance notification to state officials about what they’re carrying.
In a statement, committee chairman Rep. Haraz Ghanbari, R-Perrysburg, promised action.
“We, as lawmakers, need information as to why this happened, how this can be avoided in the future and what do we as legislators need to do to increase safety,” he said. “This is the priority right now. The people of East Palestine need our help.”
Sen. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, who’s leading a select committee on rail safety of his own, said the goal is to establish a “fact pattern” to guide future action.
The committee’s purpose, he explained, “is to try to flush out exactly what we can and cannot do, and then what we can and cannot try to push back on to get control of.”
Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.
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