Alan Shaw may very well be the most hated chief executive in the United States right now.
Two weeks ago, one of his Norfolk Southern trains carrying toxic chemicals derailed, causing an ecological disaster and devastating the 5,000 residents in the small Ohio community of East Palestine.
On Tuesday, the CEO gave his first lengthy interview to the media where he had a chance to respond to charges of corporate negligence and explain how his $50 billion market cap company would no longer pose a risk to other communities across America.
“Every single day I’ve asked myself what could we have done better,” he told CNBC in a half-hour long interview conducted from the scene of the clean-up operation.
Shaw explained that every year the company invests $1 billion in the maintenance of his tracks and railcars to ensure the transport of carcinogenic chemicals like vinyl chloride is secure.
“It’s pretty clear our safety culture and our investments in safety didn’t prevent this accident,” he acknowledged. “We’re going to figure out what caused this and what we could have done to prevent this and we’re going to learn from it and we’re going to make changes based on that.”
The Norfolk Southern boss came with no straight answers in tow, instead asking for patience until the outcome of a federal investigation is published and its recommendations can be implemented.
Shaw also notably fell short of repeating an explicit apology to the citizens affected in Ohio and nearby Pennsylvania.
Instead, the CEO said the $6.5 million in total assistance he provided so far was just a “downpayment” and that Norfolk Southern would remain engaged for the long term.
“We will be here. That’s my personal commitment, we’re going to do what it takes,” Shaw told the broadcaster. “I’m going to see this through and we’re going to help this community thrive.”
Cleanup and restitution not a question of time or money
The Atlanta, GA.-based executive said he appointed an employee living in the area as a direct liaison to the community who reports directly to him, and charged the individual with disbursing a $1 million fund in the most effective way residents saw fit.
Shaw acknowledged incinerating the carcinogenic chemicals in a fireball that reached high into the sky may have unsettled local residents, but that the air had been monitored before, during and after the “controlled burn”.
Nevertheless the call was made when pressure relief valves on the cars had failed, prompting the risk of an explosion that could rain toxic contaminants and harmful shrapnel down onto a populated community.
“Look I was here, I saw it, I know how it looked, it was scary—I never seen anything like that,” he said, declining to comment on what kind of liability claims the company may face as a result.
As for any potential public health risks, Shaw said about 450 cubic yards of tainted soil and 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water had already been secured.
He said he had no qualms about drinking the water while he was there visiting the area, now for the third time: “We’ve got hundreds of tests and thousands of data points from multiple sources and they all show that the air and water quality is good.”
Even so, Shaw said Norfolk Southern would continue its environmental cleanup in coordination with the Ohio environmental protection agency in order to ensure East Palestine can recover from the devastating disaster and thrive in the future.
“This isn’t about time or money,” he assured viewers. “We’re going to do the right thing for this community.”
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