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Senators frustrated by railroad CEO's unwillingness to guarantee help for Ohioans

A black plume rises over East Palestine from a controlled detonation of a tank car containing hazardous material from the derailed Norfolk and Southern train in early February. (AP)
A black plume rises over East Palestine from a controlled detonation of a tank car containing hazardous material from the derailed Norfolk and Southern train in early February. (AP)
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Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw was most emphatic.

"It’s my personal commitment, and Norfolk Sothern's commitment, that we’re going to be there for as long as it takes to help East Palestine thrive and recover."

MORE | 'Too many train crashes' -- J.D. Vance weighs in on East Palestine, safety reform

But during a three-hour hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill, several senators expressed skepticism about the railroad executive’s assurances the people impacted by last month's derailment would be made whole.

"This is a company that puts profits over public safety, and has for years," said Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown afterward. "And then they unleash their lobbyists to weaken the rules and to lobby Congress to deregulate. They’ve been very effective at that.

During the hearing, senators expressed frustration that Shaw was only offering broad promises.

Multiple times, Shaw simply gave different versions of this answer: "We’re committed to doing what’s right for the folks of East Palestine and the community."

But he would not be pinned down on whether the company would pay for people’s medical bills long term...or compensate them for reduced property values...or end a new staff scheduling setup blamed for short-shifting rail car inspections...or hold off on additional stock buybacks until a company safety plan is implemented...or to back a bipartisan rail safety bill that Brown, Ohio Republican J.D. Vance and other senators are sponsoring.

"All I wanted from him was to assure people on national television, assure people in front of the Senate, that they were going to do everything they promised," Brown said.

RELATED | Prior to East Palestine derailment, another Northfolk Southern train crash in Ohio

During the hearing, Brown testified, "If Norfolk Southern had paid a little more attention to safety and a little less attention to its profits – had cared a little more about the Ohioans along its tracks, and a little less about its executives and shareholders – these accidents would not have been as bad, or maybe not have happened at all."

Shaw told the Committee on Environment and Public Works that the $20 million already committed in response to the East Palestine derailment is merely a “down payment” by the troubled railroad.

“I am deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities, and I am determined to make it right,” he testified.

Shaw repeatedly pointed to Norfolk Soother's good safety record last year – despite the fact the railroad had a derailment in Springfield earlier this month, a fatality in Cleveland this week – even a derailment in Alabama on Thursday morning.

Finally, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey shot back:

"You’re not having a good month. It seems like every week there’s another accident that Norfolk Southern is a part of in our country."

Were East Palestine residents 'a little too white' to merit quick response from Biden administration?

But Vance put part of the blame on a slow reaction from authorities – perhaps for racial reasons.

"I think that our leadership – our media and our politicians – were slow to respond to this crisis, in part because a certain segment of our leadership feels like the people of East Palestine are a little out of style. They have their own politics, they’re a little too rural, maybe a little too white," the freshman senator said.

Vance took issue with cleanup delays he said are caused by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"The EPA is making it harder to get the material out of Ohio in the first place into properly licensed facilities," he said. "Now, as we speak, there are piles of dirt accumulating in East Palestine – piles of dirt, filled with toxic chemicals that haven’t been moved out of the state in a week. What happens if rains, or seeps back into ground we just dug it out of?"

The governor's office said that huge mound of contaminated dirt – 22,607 tons of it, according to the Ohio EPA – sitting at the derailment site represents the biggest challenge stymying cleanup efforts.

Dan Tierney, spokesman for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, said the state is “pressing the US EPA to move forward quickly to get the soil out.”

Debra Shore, a regional administrator for the federal EPA, told the Senate panel that the agency took over the disposal of toxic liquids and soil last month for safety reasons.

"It’s (U.S.) EPA’s responsibility to ensure that the safeguards are in place for that waste, and the loading, transport and unloading, to make sure that they are compliant with our regulations and to make sure that they have the capacity to take the waste," she said.

First responders point to shaky communication in early stages after train derailment

Today’s hearing also pointed to poor communications about the dangers of the train crash – especially in those first crucial hours.

"I do believe there were quite a few gaps in communication and missteps in the very early hours following the derailment," Ohio EPA Director Anne Voegel

She added that she believes that those gaps in communication have been addressed.

Eric Brewer, director and chief of hazardous materials response for Beaver County Department of Emergency Services – just across the Ohio border in Pennsylvania – said the muckety-mucks mucked it up in East Palestine.

"The boots-on-the-ground crews were great to work with. It seems as bosses and management get there, that’s where the communication failures start," he said.

Brewer said it was "jaw dropping" when Norfolk Southern officials announced without warning that they wanted to vent all five tank cars holding hazardous materials, instead of just the one that was overheating to dangerous levels.

East Palestine mom: Should I stay or should I go?

Although she didn't testify at the Senate hearing, Misti Allison says she traveled to Washington on Wednesday to make sure the politicians were keeping their priorities straight.

"I am first and foremost here to remind people that this isn’t just about politics, this is about people. There are real humans that live in East Palestine," the mother of two told 6 On Your Side via Zoom from the nation's capital.

Allison and her husband used to live in the Cleveland area. But once they both could both work remotely they resettled in the town where he was raised.

"We chose to move to East Palestine to raise our family in small-town America," she said. They have children aged 7 and 1.

The Norfolk Southern train wreck happened about a mile and-a-half from their home.

Allison gave mixed reviews to the response of Norfolk Southern and government officials to the derailment - and says President Joe Biden rates very low in the eastern Ohio community.

"I would say from the local, East-Palestine perspective, we do feel very forgotten and dismissed by the president."

Why would it be important to have the president visit in person?

RELATED | Norfolk Southern announces new first responders training center in Ohio

"I think that it would just show that this is a very big issue – it’s not only an issue for East Palestine but it’s a very big, a really big issue for our country. So it just would be really nice to have that support. Because if he shows that it’s a serious issue, that he’s there, I think that it just causes a ripple effect in other people who are going to care. And not just a sound bite for the short term. This is something that’s going to need to be addressed for the long term."

Allison acknowledged that she and her husband have discussed moving.

"We have talked about that. We have chosen to raise our family in East Palestine. We love it there. We love the community. We love our neighbors.

"But if the data suggest that we do need to leave, we would leave for the safety of our family.

"Hopefully it doesn’t come to that."

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