By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Norfolk Southern Chief Executive Alan Shaw has agreed to testify on the Ohio train derailment before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on March 9, the company said on Wednesday.
The Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern-operated train in Ohio caused a fire and sent a cloud of smoke over the town, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate while railroad crews drained and burned off toxic chemicals. It has prompted calls in Congress to pass new railroad safety legislation.
Also testifying at the Senate hearing will be EPA regional administrator Debra Shore, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Anne Vogel, and two local officials to address “environmental and public health threats” from the derailment.
No fatalities were reported after the crash, but residents have demanded answers about potential health risks.
Other committees in Congress are investigating the derailment.
“The rail industry needs to learn as much as it can from East Palestine, as can the owners of the rail cars,” the company said.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pressed railroads to take voluntary steps to improve rail safety as he pursues new regulations.
Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) head Amit Bose, speaking Wednesday in East Palestine, announced a new, nationwide inspection program for tracks and trains on routes that carry hazardous materials.
Bose said the FRA is working with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to prioritize routes to focus on first. He said visual and automated track inspections would “assess rail infrastructure, detect potential safety concerns and prevent potential derailments.”
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators led by Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance introduced legislation to prevent future train disasters.
The bill would require enhanced safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, as well as require wayside defect detectors, a minimum of two-person crews and increased fines for wrongdoing.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the bill a “good first step.” Buttigieg praised “the swift bipartisan action now underway in the Senate to advance common-sense regulations that can prevent future disasters.”
Buttigieg wants Congress to make it easier to impose new train safety regulations and increase fines for violating safety regulations from the current maximum $225,455 at least ten-fold.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the bill “precisely the kind of proposal we need to see in Congress” and was committed to working with the sponsors to pass it. “I’ll do whatever I can to make sure that happens,” he said.
(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington, additional reporting by Brad Brooks and Moira Warburton;; Editing by Louise Heavens, Chizu Nomiyama, Josie Kao and Diane Craft)