NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – Dozens of protestors gathered in Norfolk Saturday to call for change in the railroad industry.
They were just one of many protests happening across the country after four trains from Norfolk Southern Railway derailed, the most recent in Alabama on March 9th.
Norfolk Southern’s first derailment of the year happened in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3rd, spilling hazardous chemicals in the small town.
Protestors Saturday afternoon called for nationalizing the U.S. railroad system, bringing the nation’s railways under public ownership.
The organizer of the protest, Charles O’Brown, said the effort to unionize is to prevent a derailment like the ones in Ohio and Alabama from happening in Hampton Roads.
“The main reason is that Lambert’s point is one of the main coal points really on the East Coast, but especially in Virginia and having a coal spill similar to the derailments that we’ve seen in Ohio and Alabama would be catastrophic,” O’Brown said.
He and others at the protest said unionizing under one umbrella will make it easier for them to negotiate with employers and the government for higher pay, better working conditions and limiting the amount of railroad-related pollution disproportionately affecting minority communities.
O’Brown said the Hampton Roads railroad industry is no stranger to environmental discrimination.
“You have mounds of coal that are uncovered and all that dust has to go somewhere. So, it’s going into the communities, we’re constantly breathing it in and it’s polluting, and it just so happens that a lot of these neighborhoods are either majority or predominantly African American,” O’Brown explained.
He attributed the protest to calling out Norfolk Southern for environmental justice issues as well as labor issues.
“A lot of these rail workers, they’re being forced to work one man to a train and one person can’t drive the train, be the conductor and also try to manage other issues that may be happening.”
Norfolk Southern CEO, Alan Shaw testified in front of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on March 9th, the same day of the Alabama derailment, apologizing for the chemical fallout after 38 train cars derailed.
Five of those train cars carried hundreds of thousands of gallons of vinyl chloride, a highly flammable gas that can increase the risk of cancer.
“Norfolk Southern will clean the site safely, thoroughly and with urgency. You have my personal commitment. Norfolk Southern will get the job done to help East Palestine thrive,” Shaw said. “We will be in the community for as long as it takes. To be clear, there are no strings attached to our assistance. If residents have a concern, we want them to come talk to us.”
O’Brown said an apology is not enough.
“Apologies are good, but actions speak louder than words.”
Shaw said his company has given over $20 million to families and first responders after the East Palestine derailment.
At the Thursday hearing, Ohio Senators spoke about a bipartisan bill, the Railway Safety Act, that would enforce more safety rules for trains. Shaw agreed with many parts of the bill, but couldn’t fully commit to the legislation, teetering on the notion of adding more crew members to railway operations.