Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro’s opposition to Norfolk Southern Corp.’s handling of its East Palestine, Ohio train derailment contrasts strongly with his initial satisfaction with the controlled vent and burn of the rail vehicle’s toxic cargo.
The 53-car train with some cars carrying vinyl chloride derailed on February 3 in the village of about 5,000 residents one-quarter mile west of Beaver County in Pennsylvania. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the train went off the rail as a result of a defective axle.
Three days after the incident, Shapiro told the press the transportation company’s decision to release and burn the hazardous chemicals was proceeding “as planned.” He said monitoring of air and water quality indicated “no concerning” results.
On February 8, the Pennsylvania Democrat joined his Ohio Republican counterpart Mike DeWine in declaring that the hundreds of evacuated residents of East Palestine and its surrounding communities could safely return home.
This week, Shapiro wrote a pointed letter to Norfolk Southern President and Chief Executive Officer Alan Shaw, noting the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has been directed “to review Norfolk Southern’s conduct and report back the findings.” He noted that state lawmakers representing the region, including state Senator Elder Vogel (R-Rochester) and Camera Bartolotta (R-Washington) as well as Representatives Jim Marshall (R-Beaver Falls), Josh Kail (R-Beaver) and Rob Matzie (D-Ambridge) “are troubled by the conduct of Norfolk Southern during this incident.”
The governor raised three main objections to the rail company’s handling of the matter. First, he wrote, the corporation’s personnel “separated themselves” from government responders as they planned the vent-and-burn operation designed to avert a potentially disastrous explosion; this a unified, coordinated response was not possible. Second, Norfolk Southern originally only alerted state and local authorities of their plans to burn one rail car carrying vinyl chloride as opposed to the five cars containing the substance.
Finally, Shapiro lamented, Norfolk Southern showed “unwillingness to explore or articulate alternate courses of action” to the vent-and-burn strategy.
“Norfolk Southern failed to explore all potential courses of action, including some that may have kept the rail line closed longer but could have resulted in a safer overall approach for first responders, residents, and the environment,” the governor wrote.
Shapiro criticized the company for failing to immediately contact the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to report the derailment. The agencies, he asserted, learned of the incident hours after it took place.
The governor indicated he has talked with President Joe Biden and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg who have “pledged their full support to the people of Pennsylvania and have been constructive partners during this process.” Shapiro warned Shaw he “can be assured that Pennsylvania will hold Norfolk Southern accountable for any and all impacts to our Commonwealth.”
State Senator Doug Mastriano (R-Chambersburg), the chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee wrote to Shapiro on Wednesday with a series of questions about the state executive branch’s response. Mastriano first asked why the governor did not declare an emergency and followed up with inquiries as to what radius covered those urged to evacuate and what impacts have been made to the area, particularly its water and food supplies, by the toxic emissions.
Mastriano noted he has received notice of residents suffering lung damage and epidermal burns as well as reports of dying animals including chickens and fish.
The Biden administration has meanwhile underwent public reprehension for the pace of its own reaction to the derailment. Buttigieg himself did not address the issue until 10 days after its occurrence as plumes of toxic smoke billowed into the sky above East Palestine.
After Shapiro and DeWine announced that residents could safely go back to their households, they noted that environmental authorities will continue to monitor air quality in the region. They also said nearby residents can have air quality and private-well water at their homes tested by a private contractor hired by Norfolk Southern.
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