Norfolk Southern’s corporate PAC has donated more than $375,000 to members of the Senate committee that grilled the railroad’s chief executive on Thursday about the toxic derailment of one of the company’s trains in East Palestine, Ohio.
Seven of the nine Republicans and four of the 10 Democrats who sit on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee have cashed campaign checks from the PAC over the course of their careers, according to a HuffPost review of Federal Election Commission records dating back to 2000. The Republicans’ campaign committees and leadership PACs have collected $304,000 from Norfolk Southern, while the Democrats have received $75,000.
The donations show how Norfolk Southern, and the railroad industry more broadly, have accumulated influence in Washington and used it to fend off rail safety measures sought by regulators, unions and consumer advocates. The committee’s Republicans, in particular, have often spoken out against regulations and supported the transportation of hazardous materials by rail.
Still, the cash did little to improve Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw’s reception on Thursday morning. Members of both parties aggressively questioned Shaw over the causes of the crash and how the company will aid in the cleanup of the area around East Palestine, where residents are terrified the soil, air and water are polluted following a controlled explosion of derailed train cars that were carrying hazardous chemicals.
Shaw opened his testimony with an apology and said the company has pledged a “down payment” of $20 million to help East Palestine recover.
“We won’t be finished until we make it right,” he said in written testimony obtained by Reuters. “I am deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities.”
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee chair, promised earlier this week to “hold Norfolk Southern accountable” at the hearing. Biden administration officials and Democrats want to keep the focus on Norfolk Southern and are broadly wary of Republicans using the hearing to take shots at Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has admitted to mishandling the political elements of the response, or President Joe Biden, who has yet to make a promised visit to East Palestine.
For instance, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the ranking Republican on the panel, called the federal response to the derailment “miserable” earlier this month.
Carper and Capito have both taken money from Norfolk Southern’s PAC. Carper is the Democrat who received the most cash, banking just over $30,000. Capito received $60,000.
Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin (Md.) and Ed Markey (Mass.) each received $15,000, while Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) received a single $5,000 donation in 2020.
The remaining senators on the Democratic side of the aisle ― Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Alex Padilla (Calif.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.) and John Fetterman (Pa.) ― have never received money from Norfolk Southern, and at least Kelly and Fetterman don’t take corporate PAC money at all.
Republicans have taken larger sums: Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.) raised $77,500 from the PAC; Sen. John Boozman (Ark.) has pocketed $60,500; Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) has gotten $56,000 and Sen. Dan Sullivan (Alaska) received $40,000. Sens. Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.) and Markwayne Mullin (Okla.) took smaller sums of $6,000 and $4,000, respectively.
The only Republicans to have not received a check from Norfolk Southern’s corporate PAC are Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Sen. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, who just joined the chamber in January.
More broadly, data from the campaign finance nonprofit OpenSecrets found Norfolk Southern’s PAC has donated more to Republicans than to Democrats in every election cycle from 2012 to 2020.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which determined an overheated wheel bearing caused the derailment, has opened a special investigation into the railroad’s safety practices.
Testifying alongside Shaw will be officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, a local water sanitation official and a local emergency response official. Ohio’s senators, Republican J.D. Vance and Democrat Sherrod Brown (D), who are working on a bipartisan rail safety bill in response to the disaster, are also set to testify.
Brown and Vance’s legislation would mandate two-person rail crews ― a priority of rail unions ― and increase fines for safety violations, a step Buttigieg has also sought. It would also call for more frequent safety inspections and increase the use of sensors that can detect overheated wheel bearings.
House Republicans, including top members of the House Transportation Committee, have been skeptical of the need for any new regulations. Some Senate Republicans, including Capito, have said they are open to discussing bipartisan legislation.
Another proposal, from Rep. Chris DeLuzio, a Democrat who represents an area of Pennsylvania adjacent to East Palestine, would lower the requirements for what qualifies as a “high-hazard flammable train.” Right now, federal law only gives that designation, which requires trains to stay under 50 miles per hour, to trains with 35 or more cars carrying flammable liquids.
The train that derailed in East Palestine had just three cars carrying flammable liquids, well below the federal limit.
Republicans on the committee, however, have been supportive of transporting flammable liquids by rail. Capito, for instance, has backed transporting liquid natural gas by rail after the Biden administration placed a moratorium on the practice in 2021.