Reprehensible Corporate Behavior

Government officials are usually restrained in the way they talk about corporate behavior, even when a company is involved in a scandal. But Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, let loose against Norfolk Southern in a meeting about last year’s derailment and hazardous substances release in East Palestine, Ohio.

Homendy charged that the rail carrier “delayed or failed to provide critical investigative information to our team,” forcing her to have to threaten to issue subpoenas to compel disclosure. She described the company’s actions as “unconscionable” and “reprehensible.”

Homendy listed a series of company actions taken during the investigation she called unethical or inappropriate, including Norfolk Southern’s decision to retain a private company to conduct testing of vinyl chloride for inclusion in the NTSB record. Parties “are not permitted to manufacture their own evidence and develop their own set of facts outside of the NTSB investigative process, which is exactly what Norfolk Southern did,” Homendy said.

On top of that, Homendy said that a Norfolk Southern executive recently delivered what she and other NTSB employees interpreted as “a threat” by pressing the agency to dampen speculation about whether the company was responsible for the decision to incinerate toxic materials at the site of the derailment, a process known as vent and burn.

Those remarks came as the safety agency issued an abstract of a report on the incident in which Norfolk Southern is alleged to have “compromised the integrity of the decision to vent and burn the tank cars by not communicating expertise and dissenting opinions to the incident commander making the final decision. This failure to communicate completely and accurately with the incident commander was unjustified.”

The incineration of those toxic substances forced widespread evacuations, and even after people returned to their homes there have been lingering concerns about the potential long-term health impacts from the smoke that covered East Palestine.

It will be interesting to see whether the NTSB chair’s skewering of Norfolk Southern prompts Congress to take action on railroad safety. As documented in Violation Tracker, the Class I railroads have been fined thousands of times by the Federal Railroad Administration. Norfolk Southern was targeted more than 1,600 times by the FRA.

Yet most of these cases involve relatively minor matters. When it comes to major issues, the FRA has shown itself to be pretty ineffective. That varies somewhat from one presidential administration to another, but the industry has managed to avoid major reforms.

In fact, it has been brazen in pushing for changes that would enhance profits but increase the risk of derailments and other accidents. This is the industry, after all, which thinks it is okay to operate trains stretching for a mile or more with just one human being on board. There is even growing use of trains that are entirely remote-controlled—a practice that has already led to a rash of accidents.

Railroads have been flexing their corporate muscles since the mid-19th Century. It is time to subject them to some serious oversight.