On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The 150-car train was carrying large quantities of dangerous chemicals which caused vinyl chloride to be released into the ground and air. Vinyl chloride exposure is associated with an increased risk of liver, brain and lung cancers, as well as lymphoma and leukemia. Governor DeWine approved the release of chemicals, forcing an evacuation of residents within a mile and blackening the sky with a toxic cloud of unknown composition. Upon their return, residents found domestic animals dead or ill and thousands of fish killed in local waterways.
With a community displaced and environmental factors unknown, we have to ask…How did we get here? Many are asking if failures of federal regulators or President Trump’s deregulation of the industry are to blame. ProgressOhio found that, perhaps thanks to intense lobbying and political campaign giving, railroads avoided new safety legislation from being imposed at the state level as well.
We took a look into the lobbying and campaign contribution history of Norfolk Southern Railway in Ohio. We found that Norfolk Southern has been a prolific campaign contributor while it actively lobbied on policy and legislation at the state level.
According to the Ohio Secretary of State’s website, Norfolk Southern and its affiliates made over 100 contributions to Ohio state officials and candidates over the last five years. Including $29,000 to Gov. DeWine’s campaign and transition team, totaling nearly $100,000.
Since DeWine took office, Norfolk Southern has given him and other Ohio lawmakers $73,000 and successfully killed bipartisan railway safety legislation that would have helped protect railroad workers and the communities their trains passed through.
Since 2019, lobbyists for Norfolk Southern reported efforts to influence the outcome of lawmaking and policymaking in Ohio’s legislative and executive branches of government. Activity reports on file with the Joint Legislative Ethics Commission show that Norfolk Southern lobbyists reported 26 attempts to influence the Attorney General, Governor DeWine and the Departments of Transportation and the Ohio Rail Development Commission on issues ranging from safety to taxation.
In addition to attempts to lobby the executive branch, the company’s hired guns sought to influence lawmakers on 20 pieces of legislation ranging from taxation to safety, including one proposal to require trains to have a minimum of two crew members on board. In 2019, the company testified in opposition to the bipartisan rail safety legislation, supported by rail workers, saying it was unnecessary and unjustified. The bill died in committee without becoming law. In 2021, the company’s political action committee continued its giving to Ohio lawmakers, including the Chair and Vice Chair of the transportation committee, and an identical bill failed to move during that legislative session.
As it supported both federal and state politicians with campaign cash, Norfolk Southern has been able to evade safety regulations and reduce its costs, resulting in higher profits. In 2022, Northfolk Southern reported earning $4.8B, up 8% from the year prior. However, the consequences of deregulation have been disastrous for the people of East Palestine.
As the trial of Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and FirstEnergy has shown us, corporate giving to campaigns occasionally comes with a clear expectation of favorable policy outcomes. And in Ohio, Norfolk Southern got what it wanted.