Pa. Attorney General Charges Norfolk Southern In Wreck

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The state of Pennsylvania has filed environmental-related charges against Norfolk Southern Corp. and a former engineer who was driving a Norfolk Southern train when it derailed in June 2006.The derailment spilled 42,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide waste into the soil, wetlands and waters of two counties in Northwestern Pennsylvania causing millions of dollars in damage and killing thousands of fish, authorities said.

The engineer — Michael J. Seifert, 46, of West Seneca, N.Y. –was charged in March 2007 with two counts of risking a catastrophe and one count of reckless endangerment by the McKean County District Attorney’s Office. Seifert has posted bail and is awaiting trial on those charges.

Norfolk Southern Corp. is charged with two misdemeanor counts of unlawful conduct under the Solid Waste Management Act, according to Seifert.

Attorney General Tom Corbett said the Attorney General’s investigation was launched based on a referral from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) following a train derailment at Keating Summit, McKean County. Evidence and testimony about the derailment was presented to a statewide investigating grand jury, which recommended the charges being filed Friday, July 26.

According to the grand jury, on June 30, 2006, Seifert was driving a Norfolk Southern train down Keating Summit at a top speed of 76 miles per hour when 31 cars derailed. The speed limit on that stretch of tracks is 15 miles per hour.

The grand jury found that Seifert appeared incoherent at times and fell asleep prior to the derailment. Several hours after the accident, morphine and benzodiazepines were detected in Seifert’s bloodstream.

Corbett said that Seifert had been disciplined by Norfolk Southern in the past for similar conduct.

The grand jury determined that four of the 31 derailed cars contained sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda or lye. The sodium hydroxide had a pH level higher than 12.5, which under state and federal regulations made it a hazardous substance.

Corbett said that 42,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide was dumped out of the train cars into Big Fill Run and then carried downstream to Sinnemahoning Portage Creek. Over eight miles of streams in McKean and Cameron County were devastated by the spill.

“Prior to the derailment, the upper reaches of Sinnemahoning Portage Creek had the state’s highest quality water rating and four miles of Class A wild trout that attracted anglers throughout the country,” Corbett said. “Because of the defendants’ criminal actions, the stream’s ecosystem was completely destroyed.”

Seifert is charged with two felony counts of unlawful dumping of hazardous waste and one misdemeanor count unlawful conduct under the Solid Waste Management Act. He is also charged with one misdemeanor count of unlawful conduct under the Clean Streams Law.

“Under certain applicable Pennsylvania environmental and aquatic resource protection statutes, charges may be brought, regardless of fault or intent, when there is a non-permitted discharge of certain materials or a discharge into a stream,” Norfolk Southern said in a statement. “These charges will not have a material financial effect on Norfolk Southern, and the company expects to work with the relevant authorities to reach a satisfactory resolution of these charges.

“In the year that has passed since the incident, Norfolk Southern has spent nearly $4 million on its environmental response and to restore the area and waterways impacted by the incident,” the railroad said. “The company’s site restoration activities were completed during the week of June 18.

The areas impacted by the incident have significantly recovered, and fish, including native brook trout, have been observed in the portion of Portage Creek adjacent to and downstream of the derailment site, according to Norfolk Southern.

The following is a summary of Norfolk Southern’s response efforts, as identified by the railroad:

— Removed more than 4,600 cubic yards of material containing residual concentrations of sodium hydroxide from the east and west sides of the track and replaced with clean material and topsoil.
— Stabilized and restored sections of Portage Creek and Big Fill Hollow, which included planting 290 wetland and upland trees, 368 wetland shrubs, 1,944 live stake trees, and more than 5,000 individual wetland grass sedges. In addition, nearly 1.5 acres of land were seeded and mulched.
— Conducted a survey of aquatic life in Portage Creek, which indicated that it currently meets designated and existing uses as exceptional value waters in accordance with regulatory criteria established by the Department of Environmental Protection.
— Installed 37 groundwater monitoring wells and 46 soil borings, collected 5,300 pH and temperature readings from surface water and seeps, and performed more than 6,000 conductivity tests to define the extent of potential soil impacts, and
— Tested more than 100 residential water sources in two separate sampling periods, which in all instances confirmed that applicable standards were being met.

— News Wire