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Senate to hold a hearing on a Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Today the Senate is holding the first congressional hearing on the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee will hear from railroad executives, local leaders and their own colleagues. NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo is here with a preview. Ximena, what will the senators try to get out of this hearing?

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Lawmakers want to learn exactly why the derailment happened, details on the federal and local response and steps should this ever happen again. If you recall, at the start of February, a train carrying hazardous materials derailed, causing a spill of toxic chemicals. Residents had to temporarily evacuate for controlled burns to get rid of some of the chemicals, and there have been many health and environmental concerns.

There will be two panels of witnesses. The first will actually be fellow Senate colleagues - Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance and Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey will be giving their own testimonies about how their communities were affected. The second panel includes the head of Norfolk Southern. Also speaking will be Environmental Protection Agency officials as well.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, there has been a lot of scrutiny into how this happened, so what could we hear from the railroad and its CEO, Alan Shaw?

BUSTILLO: In prepared remarks obtained by NPR, the Norfolk Southern CEO said he is deeply sorry for the impact and, quote, "determined to make it right." Norfolk Southern is really trying to get ahead of the safety issue before what's expected to be intense questioning from all committee members on the company's safety record. The National Transportation Safety Board this week opened a rare special investigation into the company's safety practices after another train derailment in Ohio over the weekend and the death of a conductor in Cleveland earlier this week who police say was killed when a dump truck hit a train car in a rail yard.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. I mean, what can Congress do?

BUSTILLO: Well, the two Ohio senators testifying today spent time in East Palestine and will focus on the need for tighter regulations and passage of a bill that they recently introduced called the Railway Safety Act. It increases safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, ensures crews have at least two people and increases fines for rail carriers. Some of these were also recommended by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg earlier in February.

Now, the National Transportation Safety Board issued an initial report into what caused the derailment. They found that it was in part caused by an overheating wheel bearing. So the department and Congress are really also using this event as a way to push for reforms beyond just what caused this particular derailment.

MARTÍNEZ: And Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have criticized President Biden because he has not visited East Palestine. How is the administration responding?

BUSTILLO: During a press call with reporters, Delaware Senator Carper said that his understanding is that the president will make a trip, and he's the one that's the chair of this committee that's holding the hearing. But the White House has not announced any trips. And instead, officials have continuously pointed to having people on the ground within what they say was hours of the accident. Either way, the president has come out in favor of Brown and Vance's bill, and he specifically called it a tool to hold rail companies accountable. It also helps that the bill is bipartisan. Separately, the Transportation Department is working on finalizing its own rule that would require at least two crew members on board. This is very similar to in the bill. Now, it's important to note that the train that derailed did have three crew members, but the department says, generally, more crew members can help in response to issues should they happen again.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo, thanks.

BUSTILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
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