Ohio state senators hold rail safety hearing as pressure builds for federal action

By: - March 10, 2023 4:50 am

Freight train passing at railroad crossing. Getty Images.

This week Ohio’s U.S. Senators criticized Norfolk Southern for “putting profits over people,” and insisted their legislation presents a “time for choosing,” in a closely watched committee hearing. In Ohio, meanwhile, lawmakers held their own hearing on rail safety.

Separately, the rail industry announced plans to install about 1,000 additional wayside detectors in response to the derailment in East Palestine. These hot bearing detectors offer an early warning system that could potentially reduce accidents. Norfolk Southern in particular also announced plans to build a regional training center for first responders in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

In a press release, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw described it as a way to ensure first responders, “have the knowledge and tools to work safely and effectively to protect the health and safety of their fellow citizens.”

On Capitol Hill, though, Shaw declined to support the bipartisan Rail Safety Act of 2023 introduced by U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, and J.D. Vance, R-OH, among others. The CEO said only that he supported “the legislative intent to make railroads safer.”

Ohio Senate hearing

Whether the rail industry’s voluntary steps will be enough to hold off stricter oversight is far from clear. In an Ohio Senate Select Committee on Rail Safety hearing, state transportation officials detailed a significant communication gap in the immediate aftermath of the derailment.

At the prompting of Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, Ohio Department of Transportation Deputy Director said it was “several hours” before he knew what the train was carrying.

“The crews on the ground,” he went on, “it was probably six hours, as estimated, that we were actually informed at the district of what was on that train.”

“That’s huge,” Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, said later. “Because if you guys know in the first half hour that we have toxic, you could go get your hazmat uniforms, bring them out to the guys and everyone’s a lot better than they are.”

Later, Ohio Department of Health director Bruce Vanderhoff relayed that, so far, private well sampling remains clear. He added the state and Norfolk Southern are taking separate samples and testing them at different labs with effectively identical results. He called that encouraging, but not all that surprising given input from geologists about how surface water enters the aquifer.

They’re working now, he said, on determining the “cadence” of follow up testing.

“We’re getting very close to the place where I think we’ll be able to say we’ve wrapped up that initial round of testing,” Vanderhof explained. “But our testing of the drinking water in that community is going to be ongoing.”

“We’re going to need to do that for years and years,” he added.

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.


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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.