Pennsylvania state senators hammered Norfolk Southern Railway’s chef executive Monday over his company’s recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. It also affected Pennsylvania residents just across the state line.
The Senate Veteran’s Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, chaired by Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) and Sen. Katie Muth (D-Berks/Chester/Montgomery), asked Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw a battery of questions about the decision for a controlled burn of rail cars that carried toxic chemicals at the East Palestine derailment site.
“Who specifically in unified command said to do this?” Mastriano asked. “You’re blaming it on the fire chief in East Palestine. Your cars are on fire, it’s your railroad, and you’re going to leave it to the local fire chief who never had to deal with such a catastrophe before? Who said, ‘We’re going to this’?”
Shaw said the decision was made by “unified command” and that “ultimately, the decision falls on the incident commander under consultation with unified command.”
Sen. Tracy Pennycuick (R-Bucks/Montgomery) claimed the committee was “kind of glossing over” the seriousness of the situation in East Palestine just after the derailment.
“I personally think that the fire chief did the right thing,” she argued. “I’ve seen a helicopter explode, and I’ve seen the injuries when we didn’t do a controlled burn and let the fuel out.”
“I’m just trying to see if you can paint a picture for us of what that might have looked like if you had not done a controlled burn,” she said, calling it “important that we all understand what it would have looked like because I think (that) would have been catastrophic in life and property.”
Shaw responded that “the very real concern” at the time “was there would have been an uncontrolled, catastrophic explosion which would have shot vinyl chloride gas which, as you know, is denser than air, throughout the community along with shrapnel.
“So, all the relevant parties got together and modeled the dispersion, the government authorities modeled the dispersion with inputs from a number of sources,” he said.
Shaw added post-burn testing in the area indicated that “it was a success. It worked.” He said Norfolk Southern would compensate residents and businesses for their losses and reimburse them for medical care.
Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental, and ecological engineering at Purdue University, argued before the committee that the EPA and state agencies are not testing for all the toxic chemicals that might have been released in the incident.
Whelton, who has been studying soil, water, and air samples of the area with a team of volunteer researchers, said if a test is not done for certain cancer-causing chemicals, investigators won’t find them.
“The numbers don’t matter,” he said. “It matters what you test for.”
Mastriano, at one point, claimed that when he visited the site with his staff, their upper respiratory tracts burned and they developed rashes. Residents have told him about various health problems stemming from the wreck, he said.
The committee also heard briefly from railroad accident investigator Robert Comer, who said the railcars that carried the toxic chemicals did not belong to Norfolk Southern but to private companies. He speculated as to whether the railroad had checked those cars for problems before it added them to the train.
A bearing that caught fire is being blamed preliminarily for the derailment. Previously, the National Transportation Safety Board said the train continued running with an overheated bearing for 20 miles before it derailed, despite warning indicators.
Comer said poor track conditions with old, wooden railroad ties could also have played a role in the accident.
Shaw promised to help the residents and clean up the area affected by the derailment.
“I am determined to make this right,” said Shaw. “Norfolk Southern is determined to clean the site safely. We’ll get the job done and help these communities thrive.”