Norfolk Southern Corp. Chief Executive Officer Alan Shaw told Pennsylvania lawmakers on Monday that the response to February’s Ohio train derailment “worked” and that state officials thoroughly backed it.
Shaw’s appearance before the state Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee came about as a result of a subpoena earlier this month after the rail-company executive initially declined to speak to the panel. Senators also subpoenaed the corporation’s internal communications related to the wreck, some of which committee Chair Doug Mastriano (R-Gettysburg) said have been turned over and others of which he says he still awaits.
Shaw said the decision that Norfolk Southern would vent and burn five vessels of the 38-car train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, less than one mile from Pennsylvania’s western border, was made by a “unified command” led by East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick. He said that both Ohio and Pennsylvania officials at the state and local levels participated in that decision alongside federal responders and suggested no participants dissented. He testified that he was not personally on the telephone call during which that plan was made.
Norfolk Southern has maintained that the incineration was the best available option insofar as several of the train’s cars contained hazardous vinyl chloride. If not released and burned, Shaw said, the substance could have caused an explosion that would shoot shrapnel and toxic chemicals throughout the area.
“The response was managed under the unified command structure established shortly after midnight [on February 6] with the local fire chief serving as the incident commander,” Shaw said. “Our role in that process was to provide unified command and the incident commander all the relevant information that we could and my understanding is that state and local authorities including those from Pennsylvania were involved.”
The executive’s recollection of the incident elicited curiosity from Mastriano and committee Minority Chair Katie Muth (D-Royersford) about precisely which state and local officials or agencies partook in the pre-burn phone conversation. Shaw said he could not provide an immediate answer at the hearing, though he said he would “follow up.” The senators also expressed incredulity about whether a village fire official could be considered the leader of the response to such a consequential multi-state disaster.
“There’s always somebody — even if [there’s] consent around the table — there’s always somebody that pulls the trigger,” Mastriano said. “There’s always somebody that says, ‘Okay, we’re gonna do this.’ And I find it hard to believe that the local fire chief would be the one making the decision… to set an explosion off to ignite eight [sic] carloads worth of toxic chemicals.”
When the central-Pennsylvania Republican pressed Shaw further for the name of who had the ultimate say over burning several vessels, the executive responded that “my understanding is that the unified command was aligned on this and it was ultimately the decision of the incident commander, the fire chief, in conjunction with [Ohio Republican] Governor [Mike] DeWine who was there as well.” Shaw added that he understood DeWine to have spoken with Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro in detail about the plan before it was executed.
Shapiro originally lauded Norfolk Southern for the way the incident was handled but since February the Pennsylvania governor has reprehended the company for allegedly acting unilaterally and burning multiple cars instead of one. Shapiro maintains that Norfolk Southern initially expressed plans to burn just one car.
During his questioning of Shaw, Mastriano furthermore objected to Shaw’s continued use of the term “controlled vent and burn” to characterize the aftermath of the wreck. The chairman drew upon his Army experience and said the word “controlled” belies his emergency-response training.
“In that environment, we are all trained in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare,” he said. “And any chemical release was never called ‘controlled’ by any of us because there’s atmospherics of course that weigh in and determine or direct the course these winds will blow or [where] the moisture in the air might take it. We don’t control atmospheric dispersion; we could guess at it, so I can’t accept any idea that any of this was controlled.”
Shaw nonetheless insisted that the vent-and-burn strategy “worked,” a conclusion he said was supported by groundwater and air tests showing no increase in toxicity. He further claimed that the “air is safe to breathe.”
But another witness who spoke to committee members that morning, Purdue University environmental engineer Andrew Whelton, asserted that his experience with this incident suggests many people have reason for ongoing concern. He testified that chemicals carried by the region’s waterways could affect residents not only of Pennsylvania and Ohio but also Kentucky, Indiana and other states.
Many residents of Pennsylvania’s Beaver and Lawrence counties have complained of adverse health effects to humans and animals. Residents of Darlington Township, just east of East Palestine, asked Whelton to advise them on air and water safety. The engineer said his observations so far lead him to conclude that “acute health risks remained, even though the narrative was that they were not there, with the creeks.”
Whelton said he believes monthly testing should continue for the foreseeable future to ascertain toxic effects that may not show up in the first few weeks after the incident.
Norfolk Southern has given at least $7.4 million to the state of Pennsylvania, most of which will reimburse state and local agencies for work performed in reaction to the accident and incineration. Shaw said his company is also establishing a long-term medical-compensation fund to aid area residents who incur health expenses. He said those who are having problems concerning the matter can go to nsmakingitright.com to have those problems addressed.
Mastriano said after questioning the executive that he and his colleagues may not be finished with their inquiries and “may request you back again.”
Senators finally heard form forensic railroad accident investigator Robert F. Comer who faulted Norfolk Southern for numerous safety issues he said were apparent. Those included the company’s decision not to place cars containing vinyl chloride in the back of the train and its continued use of wooden railroad ties that are “in terrible condition.”
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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Alan Shaw” by Pennsylvania Senate GOP.