Norfolk Southern CEO: East Palestine is safe
EAST PALESTINE — One week after testifying in front of the U.S. Senate committee on environment and public works, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw sat down Thursday with local media during a roundtable held at East Palestine’s Centenary United Methodist Church.
Shaw said he wanted to make two things clear: He is sorry for what happened, and he wants to make it right — as he reached out to the East Palestine community through a handful of journalists at the invite-only event.
“I am terribly sorry that this has happened, very sorry,” he said. “And I want to make sure Norfolk Southern does the right thing. And I am going to see this through. I am not going anywhere. No matter what happens and no matter what it takes.”
Shaw said Norfolk Southern is committed to the community and working hard to address East Palestine’s leading concerns of long-term health, property values and water safety.
“Those are the three things I continue to hear about,” Shaw said. “We are working on longer term solutions for long-term health care, for property evaluation and for water testing. We are working with Ohio and Pennsylvania to set up some funding and structure to fix those things and address those concerns.”
Shaw gave no details on how those concerns will be remedied. He reiterated that the process is in the early stages and the specifics are undecided — but he said the railway is “working on a fund for property-value loss relative to some sort of market analysis.”
While long-term assistance is still being worked out, Shaw said Norfolk Southern is working on what it can do now for East Palestine. That action includes small things that he said make big differences.
“We had heard that flower sales over Valentine’s Day had been really depressed because of what happened here. And so we went to the flower shop and we all their flowers, and we delivered them to several of the retirement homes in the area,” he said.
“Frankly most of the folks who live here are entrepreneurs. They run their own businesses. We started taking products from the local businesses back to our headquarters in Atlanta and selling them. That’s what we do. That’s what Norfolk Southern is about,” he continued.
“We have 19,700 people at Norfolk Southern who really make this right and help this community thrive. I can’t tell you exactly what East Palestine is going to look like a year from now. I can tell you the goal is to get East Palestine back into the position where it was Feb. 2 or better.”
EFFORTS SO FAR
Cleanup efforts continue at the site. So far, more than 700 tons of contaminated soil and water and nearly 2 million gallons of liquid have been removed. In the days following the disaster, waste was buried instead of removed. The cleanup efforts now include digging up that waste and removing it from the site as well.
Shaw corrected reports that the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Norfolk Southern to dig up the contaminated dirt. He said it was solely the railroad’s decision to do so.
“We were not ordered by the EPA to do that. We were told by the citizens here that that is what they wanted, and that’s what we did,” Shaw said. “We followed a path of environmental remediation that had been used before in similar situations so we were very confident that it would work. However, when I sat down with the folks here, they made it real clear that it really bothered them that we weren’t taking out the soil underneath the tracks. It would have been really easy for me not to listen, but I did.”
Shaw said he wants to hear feedback from the community. He said he has appointed a Norfolk Southern employee, employed in the Conway yard, as a personal liaison when it comes to figuring out what the community most needs in the near term.
“I had met with one of our employees who lives in East Palestine. He invited me to his house, and we had a really long conversation about the impact of the derailment and what Norfolk Southern can do to help,” Shaw said. “As I walked to the car, I pulled him aside and said, ‘I want you to report to me. I want you to report to me for a year so I have a direct line of communication with a citizen of East Palestine’. I wanted someone who could help me figure out what people need now.”
For long-term needs, Norfolk Southern is planning on hiring an individual from the East Palestine community who can help Shaw better understand what the people impacted by the derailment will need in the months and years to come. Shaw said he is also relying on the local officials to lead the way.
“It starts with relationships and starts with engagement. I am taking the lead from the community leaders here and the citizens here,” he said. “I want the citizens and local officials to direct us. They know their communities far better than us, and they know where resources need to go. My job is to provide those resources.”
Shaw said he also wants East Palestine to know that he believes the village and surrounding communities are safe. When asked what he would do if he lived in East Palestine, Shaw didn’t hesitate.
“I would absolutely stay. It’s safe. I trust the science,” he said “I trust the data. I trust the U.S. EPA. I trust the Ohio EPA. I trust the Pennsylvania DEP, and I trust the local health officials. All the tests, no matter who is administering them, have come back with the same data points. Millions and millions of data points are saying it’s safe. I would absolutely stay here.”
Also Thursday, Norfolk Southern announced a $250,000 donation to The Way Station, an Ohio-based nonprofit. The Way Station has been assisting East Palestine residents with food, clothing, water, hygiene products, diapers, cleaning supplies and gift cards to purchase other necessities.
This $250,000 donation will help The Way Station establish a larger, permanent location in the East Palestine area and hire additional staff, including a social worker.
The donation brings Norfolk Southern’s total financial commitment to the community of East Palestine to approximately $24 million, the railroad stated in a news release.