Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw was evasive at times Thursday when asked direct questions from senators, despite his assurances that he and his company were committed to helping the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, affected by a toxic train derailment last month.
He appeared to dodge in responding to a number of "yes" or "no" questions during a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works committee hearing on the incident, which has sparked a number of health and environmental threats and triggered political fallout.
Shaw declined to say if Norfolk Southern would compensate people in East Palestine and other affected communities for any long-term medical costs, including medical testing, or economic damages. He also declined to commit to supporting the proposed bipartisan Railway Safety Act, guaranteeing at least seven paid sick days for employees or compensating affected homeowners for their diminished property values.
Instead, he repeatedly answered lawmakers' specific questions on those points by saying the company is "committed to doing what's right."
Senators ask Shaw to answer 'yes' or 'no'
As the three-hour hearing ended, committee chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., said some of Shaw's answer didn't adequately address his and his colleague's questions.
"One of the things I'm concerned about, I'm not a big fan, as I said Mr. Shaw, of yes-no answers. That's not usually my style. But I didn't think we heard as many unequivocal answers -- 'yeses' -- as I might like to have, and we might want to revisit that at another time," Carper said.
He began the panel's probing of Shaw by asking him if Norfolk Southern would compensate the people of Ohio and Pennsylvania for possible long-term medical costs and economic damages resulting from this disaster, to which Shaw responded by saying his team would do "more than less" to clean up the area.
"Senator, we're committed to doing what's right for the folks of East Palestine and the community. That's been my personal commitment since the day after this happened. I pulled my team together. And I told my team we are going to do more than less with the environmental cleanup, and we're going to do more than less with the citizens of East Palestine," Shaw said.
A follow-up question touched on Norfolk Southern's commitment to paying for long-term medical testing for people with known or suspected exposure to the leak of dangerous chemicals.
'I'm committed to doing what's right'
"I'm committed to doing what's right. You know, we're gonna be there today, tomorrow, a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now," Shaw said.
At one point, Carper pointedly asked Shaw, "Yes or no: Will you commit that Norfolk Southern will be there for as long as it takes to make East Palestine, Ohio, Darlington Township in Pennsylvania, and the surrounding communities whole from this disaster?"
Shaw declined to answer with a "yes" or "no." "I'm terribly sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the folks of that community. And yes, it's my personal commitment that's Norfolk Southern that we're going to be there for as long as it takes to help East Palestine thrive and recover," he said. "That's my personal commitment."
Declines to commit to Railway Safety Act
Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., who is currently hospitalized to receive treatment for clinical depression, submitted a question for Shaw, inquiring if the CEO would support the recently-proposed bipartisan Railway Safety Act.
Shaw indicated that he'd support parts of the legislation, saying he'd commit to "the legislative intent to make rail safer," without saying, "yes."
He said during the hearing that Norfolk Southern had invested in several new initiatives to enhance safety which included more hotbox detectors and installing its first new wayside detector on Wednesday.
Compensation for decreased property values? Paid employee sick leave?
Shaw declined to say whether Norfolk Southern would commit to providing families compensation for decreased property values as a result of the derailment when questioned by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., instead repeating that the company was "committed to do what's right."
"Well, what's right is a family that had a home worth $100,000 that is now worth $50,000 will probably never be able to sell that home for $100,000 again. Will you compensate that family for that loss?"
"I'm committed to what's right, if --" Shaw said again, as Markey interrupted, saying, "That is the right thing to do. These are the people who are innocent victims, Mr. Shaw. These people were just there at home and all of a sudden, their small businesses, their homes are forever going to have been diminished in value. Norfolk Southern owes these people. It's an accident that is basically under the responsibility of Norfolk Southern, not these families."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., pushed Shaw on whether he would commit to giving his employees guaranteed paid sick leave, and was not satisfied with the CEO's response.
Shaw also said that "everything is on the table" when Sanders asked about Norfolk Southern's responsibility in covering health care needs for East Palestine residents.
"Senator, I share your focus on our employees, I will commit to continuing to discuss with them important quality of life issues, with our local craft colleagues,' Shaw said.
"With all due respect, you sound like a politician, Mr. Shaw," Sanders replied.