EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Norfolk Southern recently completed the removal of contaminated soil from the site of the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, but CEO Alan Shaw says the company is not finished helping residents.
During a recent one-on-one interview with The Business Journal, Shaw sported an orange “Go Bulldogs” rubber bracelet on his wrist and looked at photos of himself and many of the 300 Norfolk Southern employees and contractors who have been in town for the past nine months. The photos show not only people working on the cleanup, but volunteering at local events and supporting local businesses.
The photos cover two walls at the company’s cleanup-site office in Centenary Methodist Church. The office will eventually move to a building formerly occupied by Brittain Chevrolet at 248 N. Market St.
“Look at this room,” said Shaw. “That tells you about the Norfolk Southern team, how embedded we are in this community. How strongly we feel about honoring our commitments to the community and how we feel welcome in the community.”
The photos depict the ever-increasing distance from the initial anger expressed by residents following the derailment. Shaw said he has always felt safe in East Palestine, despite what some people said right after the derailment when he visited the Family Assistance Center and the Red Cross shelter set up at the school.
“I told people who I was and who I represented and to tell me what we can do to help,” said Shaw. “Are you getting everything you need? That’s been our focus since Day One. And I understand that people were angry. They were upset. And they were scared.”
Shaw said his first reaction when he heard about the derailment was to ask if there were any injuries, deaths or hazardous materials. He was thankful that “no” was the answer to the first two questions and turned his attention to the chemicals contained in the trains. Within three days, the presence of one of those chemicals – vinyl chloride – drove a decision to destroy it with a controlled burn to prevent what could have been a catastrophic explosion.
Shaw said he also immediately started to consider what the railroad, with its vast amounts of resources, could do to help people.
“Then I brought the team together and I said we’re going to do more rather than less and we’re going to make it right in East Palestine. And candidly, I didn’t know what that meant,” Shaw said.
GETTING TO KNOW TOWN
Before the derailment, Shaw had never been to East Palestine, a community of 4,800 not unlike so many others that Norfolk Southern trains pass through every day.
Fifteen Norfolk Southern employees call East Palestine home. Long before the derailment, trains often stopped near downtown long enough to change crew members at the end of a shift.
Shaw said following the derailment he found himself sitting down with residents in their homes, churches, city offices, businesses and schools.
“In the first month or two, I had some really difficult conversations and I deserved it. And I needed to be there, to be out front and I needed to listen,” Shaw said. “I needed to learn, and to act decisively. That’s what we’ve done. And we’ve made a lot of promises and we’ve kept every single one of those promises.”
Those promises meant cleaning up an area of contaminated soil that lay not just under and around the newly laid tracks, but in the areas where the twisted, burned wreckage sat after the derailment. It meant cleaning up the burn pits, where chemicals were vented from the rail cars and lit on fire. It meant collecting the groundwater that came through that area throughout the spring and summer and treating it.
Data released Nov. 3 by the EPA show 174,707 tons of solid waste has been shipped from the site, along with 397 million gallons of wastewater. More than 70 structures were cleaned.
The next steps include backfilling with clean soil the places where deep ditches were dug to remove soil until tests showed no further contaminants.
“I’m really happy and pleased that [on Oct. 30] we celebrated a milestone – the last truckload of contaminated soil was moved off site,” Shaw said. “We moved 170,000 tons of contaminated soil off-site in nine months. And we did it safely and thoroughly under the oversight of the EPA. There’s been hundreds and thousands of tests and millions of datapoints that all point to the same thing. They are all saying the air, soil and water is safe.”
That has led to the reopening of East Taggart Street and Taggart Road into Pennsylvania, something people repeatedly told Shaw needed to happen. The street parallels the railroad tracks nearest to the derailment clean-up site and became too congested by heavy truck traffic as the work continued. When it reopened, Shaw said the railroad placed electronic billboards up in Pennsylvania so people would know.
Norfolk Southern has been working under the oversight of both the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA, which have held the railroad to high standards. The agencies continue to insist that Norfolk Southern work with their personnel to assess sediment and sheen in nearly five miles of creeks – in Sulphur Run that goes past the derailment and Leslie Run that converges with Sulphur near City Park.
Shaw said you cannot be in town long without recognizing how proud people are of City Park.
“One of the first places the community leaders took me in early February was the park,’” he said. “They love the park. It was clear they have some ideas of how to enhance the park. So again, I’m listening, we’re listening, and we’re going to apply Norfolk Southern’s resources.”
That has meant a $25 million commitment to enhance the park. Additionally, Norfolk has committed $4.3 million to overhaul the municipal water treatment system, $500,000 toward the city hiring an economic development director and an untold amount to construct a first-responder’s training center, which Shaw believes will bring people from the region into East Palestine.
He has announced an economic development summit will take place Nov. 30 as part of a continuing effort to help the village recover. Although no site has been chosen, the summit will include Shaw, JobsOhio representatives and state elected officials.
“You know, what I was telling the [East Palestine] students today – sometimes bad things happen. And it’s really about how you respond to those obstacles,” Shaw said. “I’m very proud of our progress to date and I’m proud of how the community has been receptive to what we’ve done.”
East Palestine is not alone in taking a big hit following the derailment. Norfolk Southern stock has dropped more than 50 points this year.
Shaw has reminded investors during conference calls that insurance will be helping to reimburse the railroad for some of the expenses related to the derailment, a figure that has topped $900 million.
But even before the derailment, Shaw said he was putting in place changes for the railroad.
“Six months after I became CEO of Norfolk Southern, I charted a new course in which we don’t pay intense focus on near-term margins. It’s more of a long-term approach to growth and what’s best for our customers, what’s best for our employees, what’s best for the communities we serve and what’s best for our shareholders,” Shaw said.
Although rail continues to be the safest form of transporting goods and Norfolk had the lowest number of derailments over the last two decades, Shaw said he is committed to making it safer. He wants all 20,000 Norfolk Southern employees focused on safety and advocating for it.
“We have 1,500 customers in Ohio and 2,900 employees in Ohio,” said Shaw. We’ve invested about $200 million a year in Ohio. We understand the incredible economic growth engine for the communities that we serve and we take safety very seriously.”
In testimony before Congress, Shaw stated that he backs some of the safety proposals put forth by state and federal legislators.
Norfolk recently installed in Leetonia a new technology – Digital Train Inspection Portals – engineered by the Georgia Tech Research Institution. As a train passes through the portal, 38 cameras take 1,000 images per rail car at speeds up to 70 mph and use artificial intelligence to analyze the images and notify the railroad of a problem. The railroad then alerts the train crew.
“We’re using optical technology that is used to monitor rocket launches. It’s pretty cutting edge,” said Shaw. The company plans to implement two dozen of those portals, as well as a 25% increase in the number of hotbox detectors to further decrease the distance between safety checks. Shaw calls it a multipronged approach.
“This is to augment what our folks on the ground already do. I understand that artificial intelligence in these cameras is going to capture things that I couldn’t reasonably expect a train conductor in Chicago to see at 2 a.m. in February to catch,” Shaw said. “We want to use technology to make our teammates even more powerful.”
In its preliminary report, the National Transportation Safety Board suggested wheel bearings on the derailed train were on fire when the derailment occurred. Its temperature was detected to be rising 20 miles to the west in Salem. But it did not rise to what Norfolk considered a critical level until it reached the detector near East Palestine.
“I regret this happened. Absolutely we regret, all 20,000 Norfolk Southern employees regret this happened,” Shaw said. “The NTSB preliminary report shows that the NS train crew did exactly what they were supposed to do. There were no track defects and the technology worked as designed. It was a failed wheel bearing on a car that no railroad owns that touched three railroads before it touched us.”
Shaw said he believes that what Norfolk has done since the derailment is making a difference – not just the cleanup effort, but in building the long-term success of East Palestine. While the number of contractors and Norfolk employees in town may lessen, he intends to continue working in East Palestine for at least five or 10 years.
Currently, there are about 300 employees or contractors in town every day. They go home at the end of each day but always want to come back to help, according to Shaw. That tells him the workers are having a positive impact on East Palestine and the community is having a positive impact on the Norfolk Southern team.
“That’s not an easy thing to do,” Shaw said. “It was a Norfolk Southern train that derailed here and upended the town. But what I think the community sees is that we’re keeping each and every one of our promises – that we’re going above and beyond.”
Pictured at top: Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw stands in front of a wall of photographs in the railroad’s clean-up office in East Palestine.