After laying low in the wake of the disastrous East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, Norfolk Southern is back to spending millions in Congress — and a paper trail indicates that it’s lobbying for weaker regulation and rewarding members of Congress who play along.
From the day of the derailment on February 3 through the end of April, the company made no political contributions, instead receiving refunds of donations it had made to a number of campaigns. But as the national spotlight dimmed, the company got back to work.
In the last four months, Norfolk spent $1,657,500 on lobbyists who met with the same elected officials tasked with regulating the company. And in June and July alone, the company shelled out almost $200,000 to a myriad of congressional campaigns and political action committees, or PACs, according to its recent filings with the Federal Election Commission, including one from this week.
As Norfolk went on a spending spree, the Bipartisan Railway Safety Act stalled in the Senate, due to a lack of sufficient Republican support. The legislation was introduced after the derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, killing animals and leaving residents with an array of ongoing symptoms, including rashes, stomach pain, and respiratory complications. Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has reportedly prioritized the bill for the fall.
The bill would enact stronger safety standards for all trains carrying hazardous materials and make sure that trains, like the one that derailed in Ohio, would be subject to those regulations. It would also mandate two-person crews for all freight trains (which rail workers have long advocated for), limit train length, and increase the maximum fines for violating safety regulations. (The oil company that manufactured the toxic chemicals that were released in Ohio has also donated heavily to Republicans while pushing to weaken the bill, The Lever reported.)
“We remain committed to the ultimate goal of enacting bipartisan legislation that advances rail safety and strengthens the ability of rail carriers to maintain their critical role in the nation’s economy,” Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker wrote in an email to The Intercept, noting that the legislation would help with preventing, mitigating, and responding to accidents and improve safety. “We look forward to continuing our engagement with Members of Congress on the issues, achieving a meaningful and effective new law, and leading on safety measures within the industry.”
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has said the company is “for bipartisan solution to rail safety.” His company’s lobbyists, meanwhile, spent the spring meeting with members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which watered down the bill in May. Afterward, Norfolk Southern sent thousands of dollars to several of the committee’s Republican members.
“I’m honestly just not surprised. That’s what Norfolk does. They throw money at people to make them complicit. They don’t care about safety. It’s all about their bottom line, and unfortunately, most people aren’t above being paid off,” said East Palestine resident Amanda Greathouse, who is suffering from an unusual rash and whose 5-year-old son is currently experiencing stomach pain. “This will happen again I’m sure. Maybe next time somewhere with a larger population that takes more time to evacuate. Maybe the train car explodes on impact. Maybe people die next time. It’s sad, but they have the money to keep the people in power quiet.”
Over the summer, Norfolk Southern donated $5,000 to each of the PACs associated with GOP Sens. Marsha Blackburn, Ted Budd, Shelley Moore Capito, John Cornyn, John Hoeven, and Cynthia Lummis — most of them members of the Senate transportation committee. Meanwhile, Blackburn and Sen. Roger Wicker received $1,500 and $5,000, respectively, to their campaign accounts. None of the Republican senators’ offices responded to requests for comment on the donations, nor about their stances on the Bipartisan Railway Safety Act.
Meanwhile, a few Democrats have welcomed cash from the rail giant too. The PACs of Sens. Joe Manchin and Chris Van Hollen each received $5,000. Manchin’s office did not answer a question about the donation, and Van Hollen’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
In the House, Republican Rep. Garret Graves, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, received $2,000 just weeks ago from the company. During the 2022 election cycle, Graves was the leading recipient of cash from the railroad industry — more than the other 434 members of the House.
In addition to donating to individual lawmakers, Norfolk Southern also contributed to the campaign arms for both parties. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, National Republican Congressional Committee, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee each took $15,000 from the rail giant. The Blue Dog PAC, a fund for a handful of conservative Democrats, received $5,000 as well.
When asked about the bipartisan bill and the Norfolk Southern donation, the NRSC demurred. “The NRSC is a campaign organization. The sole goal of the NRSC is to elect a Republican Senate majority,” said NRSC spokesperson Philip Letsou. “Your questions would be better suited for official offices in the Senate.” The other campaign committees did not respond to requests for comment.
Norfolk Southern also donated $5,000 a piece to the leadership PACs of South Carolina Rep. and Democratic Party veteran James Clyburn and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise.
In a string of disclosure forms, lobbyists, who earned tens of thousands of dollars for each contract, made clear what they are working toward. “Meeting with members and staff about East Palestine Train Derailment / Senate Commerce and Senate EPW (Environment and Public Works),” one disclosure form reads.
Sens. Blackburn, Budd, Lummis, Capito, and Wicker — who all received money from the company — sit on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Meanwhile, Capito chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works, where she is joined once again by Lummis and Wicker.
Sen. John Thune, the Senate’s second-highest-ranking Republican who also sits on the Transportation Committee, is a former rail industry lobbyist himself who has been opposed to the rail reforms. The rail safety bill was co-introduced by Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, who helped lead the charge for an amendment that weakened the legislation, as The Lever reported. The changes he pushed for, alongside Transportation Committee Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, delayed when rail companies would be required to update old and vulnerable tank cars, weakened the requirement for wayside defect detectors, and stripped requirements for the Department of Transportation to issue additional rules for trains carrying hazardous materials and for limiting train length and weight.
Lummis went even further, trying unsuccessfully to remove a requirement for at least two-person crews on trains — a bare minimum the industry has been opposed to.
Many of the lobbyists working on behalf of the rail industry previously worked in the halls of Congress, now subbing their congressional staffer badges for a Norfolk Southern-stamped guest pass. So far this year, 167 of Norfolk Southern’s lobbyists are among the industry pack who used to hold government jobs. And some were even members of Congress themselves, like former Sens. Trent Lott (a Republican) and John Breaux (a Democrat). In one of their $60,000 Norfolk Southern contracts, the pair were among lobbyists speaking to Congress on an array of “regulatory issues affecting the railroad industry,” including the Bipartisan Railway Safety Act.
In total, Norfolk Southern spent $797,500 on lobbyists before the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee made its changes to the rail safety bill in May.
And the railway giant is apparently not yet satisfied. As recently as last month, its lobbyists continued to meet with members of Congress.
Update: August 18, 2023, 2:27 p.m. ET
This article was updated to include a statement that Norfolk Southern provided after publication.