Critics fault the company for its perceived double standards in dealing with the aftermath of train derailments.
Norfolk Southern has come under heavy criticism for its response to the latest train derailment incident, the latest in a worrying rapidly growing string of events. After the Ohio train derailment, the railroad corporation pledged to donate $6.5 million to alleviate the effects of toxic chemicals released from the train wreck. The funds were supposedly to help those affected by the pervasion of those chemicals in East Palestine.
However, in an earlier statement, Norfolk Southern stated that it plans to spend $7.5 billion on stock buybacks to benefit its shareholders. This amount is over a thousand times larger than the total donated to the victims of the train derailment. The disproportionate spending has triggered reactions from a number of different perspectives.
The recent train derailment incident is not the first time Norfolk Southern has been embroiled in a conflict with the environmental authorities. Other train derailments have been ascribed to the company.
Norfolk Southern, the fifth-largest rail carrier in the United States, accounted for more than half of the damages caused by hazardous materials incidents involving rail transportation in 2022, federal data shows.
Train derailments involving Norfolk Southern have been on the rise in recent years, with the most recent accident occurring in 2022. On June 18th, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed near the town of Abingdon, Virginia. The train was traveling from Lynchburg, Virginia, to Roanoke, Virginia, when it derailed and caused a hazardous chemical spill that posed a significant threat to the environment and public safety.
The incident prompted an immediate response from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Environmental Protection Agency. The hazardous materials, which included anhydrous ammonia, were contained and the public was notified of the potential risks. The cause of the crash was determined to be a broken axle on the train, which caused the train to derail and spill its contents.
Prior to this, in May 2022, a Norfolk Southern train derailment in western Pennsylvania released an estimated 1,423 gallons of combustible petroleum distillates, causing an estimated $8 million in damages, according to the incident report filed with federal regulators. Three people were reportedly sent to the hospital in connection with the incident, in which nine tanker cars fell into a creek at the mouth of the Allegheny River.
Last October, a train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed, resulting in the release of an estimated 20,000 liquid gallons of paraffin wax in Sandusky, Ohio, and causing $2.6 million in damage according to an incident report filed with the Department of Transportation, which regulates shipments of hazardous materials.
Just weeks later, the derailment of another Norfolk Southern train in Illinois resulted in the release of 20,001 gallons of another flammable chemical and caused $3.2 million in damage, according to an incident report filed with federal regulators.
In 2023, another Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. This time, it left over 4000 residents reeling in shock and pain. There were reports of severe coughing fits and burning eyes due to the sheer amount of chemicals released into their air.
According to the Norfolk Southern Newsroom, on February 4, 2023, Norfolk Southern made a donation of $25,000 to the Red Cross to support its efforts in East Palestine. On February 14, the company pledged a $1 million “community support fund”, and free chemical testing of air, water, and soil. On February 16, the support fund was increased to $2.5 million.
While it has offered funds to support the affected, critics still allude to what they see as insincerity on the part of Norfolk Southern. The company has spent $3.4 billion on stock repurchases in 2022 and $3.1 billion in 2021. This has brought its recent purchases to $6.5 billion.
One is tempted to question how Norfolk Southern is able to spend so much to satisfy its stakeholders while skimping on railway safety measures. During the Obama administration, the Federal Railroad Corporation claimed that it was too costly to equip trains carrying hazardous materials with modern brake systems. Consequently, the rule requiring train operators to use modern brakes was blocked.