COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Norfolk Southern spends millions of dollars every year on political activity to engage with policymakers on issues that could impact the company or the railroad business as a whole, according to its company website.
While lobbying and donating to campaigns can help a company further its own interests, experts and lawmakers alike say Norfolk Southern can’t lobby its way out of the crisis triggered by a toxic train derailment in East Palestine in early February.
According to Norfolk Southern, the company spent more than $4.3 million on lobbying efforts in 2021, the most recent year for which they published that data. That figure does not include campaign contributions on the state and federal level.
Since the East Palestine derailment, the Ohio Senate formed a Select Committee on Rail Safety. During the two hearings it’s held so far, Vice Chair Sen. Michael Rulli hasn’t held back.
“We already know where the blame is. The blame is on the railroad. There’s no doubt about that,” Rulli said during Wednesday’s hearing.
The state senator, who represents East Palestine, received $500 from Norfolk Southern’s political action committee in donations to his campaign.
When he isn’t in committee hearings, Rulli has spent much of his time since the derailment near ground-zero. He was in East Palestine Thursday and unavailable to speak with NBC4.
Similarly, Gov. Mike DeWine, whose campaign received $6,000 from Norfolk Southern’s PAC, has called for additional safety regulations for railroads.
On Wednesday, DeWine’s office announced that Norfolk Southern “agreed to his idea” to build a new first responders training center in Ohio.
DeWine’s press secretary Dan Tierney told NBC4 that the governor “will continue to keep an eye on (Norfolk Southern) and hold them accountable” — noting that so far, the rail company has been fulfilling its financial obligations in the wake of the derailment.
Suzanne Marilley, a political science professor at Capital University, said while corporate money can certainly get the attention of lawmakers, it won’t get a company very far in the face of a catastrophe.
“At the front end, the donations assure that the corporations can get their feet in the door. But obviously, it’s votes that put the elected officials into office,” Marilley said. “The voices of the people have shed light on — let’s say in improvement of safety features — especially by Norfolk Southern, and the new light, the sunshine shed on all that seems to have had the opposite effect from what the campaign contributions may have intended.”
During Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw’s testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee Thursday morning, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island pressed Shaw on his company’s political spending in previous years.
Shaw said regulations his company lobbied against would not have prevented the East Palestine derailment.
Ohio U.S. Senators J.D. Vance and Sherrod Brown addressed the committee — of which they are not members. The Republican and the Democrat worked together on legislation to improve rail safety along with the U.S. senators from Pennsylvania, who are also on opposite parties.
The Federal Election Commission showed no record of donations from Norfolk Southern’s PAC to Brown or Vance’s campaigns.