(The Center Square) – In responding to the East Palestine train derailment in Ohio, Pennsylvania officials said Norfolk Southern’s cagey behavior undermined the state’s emergency response.
During a public hearing on Thursday, Randy Padfield, leader of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, walked the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee through events leading up to the release of vinyl chloride from a handful of derailed cars.
The same events – as The Center Square previously reported – drew rebuke from Gov. Josh Shapiro, who accused Norfolk Southern of prioritizing speed over safety and ignoring emergency response best practices. In a letter issued earlier this month, Shapiro promised to hold the railroad accountable for any and all impacts – environmental, health and economic – that come as a result of the accident.
State and local officials echoed the same sentiment during Thursday’s hearing.
“We ask the rail company — Norfolk Southern had their individuals there — say ‘what other alternative plans have you thought through?’” Padfield said. “At that point in time, we were told by Norfolk Southern, they are the experts, they have over 200 years of experience on the scene in their personnel doing this, and this is the only option.”
Ohio state officials had heard similar things from Norfolk Southern, Padfield noted, and they had little time to argue for other options — or know what those different choices could be.
“They failed to articulate their decision process of getting to that option,” Padfield said. “We were forced into a situation of making a decision on what we need to do at this point in time, understanding that they want to vent and burn five cars of vinyl chloride.”
When PEMA asked if the decision could be delayed until the next day to allow time to evacuate the downwind population, Norfolk Southern said it was a “time-critical decision.”
The train derailed on Feb. 3, and the rail company released the chemicals on Feb. 6.
“Now these cars have laid on the ground for three days at this point in time, the fires died down significantly, the cars had not failed to this point,” Padfield said.
Better communication could have improved Pennsylvania’s response, he added.
“If we would have known three days ahead of time, or two days ahead of time, that Norfolk Southern planned to do a vent and burn operation … we’d have more than enough time to plan for that,” Padfield said.
“It was clear that [Norfolk Southern’s] lack of communications has now put us in a bad situation,” said Eric Brewer, Director of Emergency Services for Beaver County.
The Department of Environmental Protection assured residents that they would keep an eye on local water sources and cover the cost of testing.
“We’re committed to long-term monitoring of those wells,” DEP Acting Secretary Richard Negrin said. “We’re going to continue to do that independent testing of those wells well into the future … there’s no end-date to that.”
The nearest public water source, he noted, was 11 miles from the area and DEP will continue to measure the water quality there.
Negrin said they’re focused on monitoring wells within two miles of the derailment site, but encouraged residents farther away to reach out to DEP to get their water tested.
Rene Rocha, an attorney with the Morgan & Morgan law firm, skewered Norfolk Southern in his testimony, insisting “there’s no excuse” for how the railroad handled the clean-up.
“Every company that operates with toxic and combustible chemicals like these has emergency manuals, emergency response plans, and other similar plans in place to deal with situations in the event that they occur,” he said. “I can guarantee you that Norfolk Southern’s emergency response plan … there’s no way it said ‘drain all the cars and light them on fire in a ditch.’”
He also reminded officials to watch their language when describing the chemical release.
“This ‘controlled release’ and ‘controlled burn’ is something that came out of a 5th Avenue PR shop — there was nothing controlled about what happened here,” Rocha said.
State lawmakers, however, praised emergency responders for their actions in a difficult situation and demanded a stronger response from the rail company.
“Norfolk Southern, they need to pay up,” said Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Chambersburg. “It seems like Pennsylvania is an afterthought to them … the transparency is lacking.”
“To allow corporate greed and profit to take precedence and priority over the lives of human beings has been a plague to our country for a long time,” said Sen. Katie Muth, D-Royersford.
A second hearing to discuss the derailment is scheduled for Feb. 27 in Harrisburg with the Senate Transportation Committee.