The Lead

Shapiro says Norfolk Southern’s response to East Palestine derailment and fire put first responders and residents at ‘significant risk’

By: - February 14, 2023 6:16 pm

Gov. Josh Shapiro released a strongly worded letter to the president of Norfolk Southern on Tuesday, criticizing the railroad’s unilateral decision-making in the aftermath of the Feb. 3 derailment of a train loaded with hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio.

Shapiro’s letter to Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw followed a meeting with elected officials and emergency management officials in Beaver County. The derailment happened a quarter-mile from Pennsylvania’s border with Ohio.

Toxic chemicals including vinyl chloride were released and burned resulting in plumes of thick black smoke and the formation of hydrochloric acid and phosgene, a respiratory irritant used as a chemical warfare agent during World War I. 

It forced the evacuation of residents within a mile of the crash site, and left those in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania with questions about their safety and lasting harm to the environment.

Shapiro said that while the railroad industry is primarily regulated by the federal government, he is calling on the Pennsylvania Public Utility  Commission, which is charged with overseeing railroads in Pennsylvania, to review Norfolk Southern’s conduct. 

“Like me, members of our state legislative delegation are troubled by the conduct of Norfolk Southern during this incident. As they proceed with their review and oversight responsibilities, I have pledged the full cooperation of my administration in order to help them facilitate holding your company accountable to Pennsylvanians,” Shapiro wrote. 

He noted that he has spoken with President Joe Biden and U.S. Transportation SecretaryPete Buttigieg, and urged the federal agency that regulates the transportation of hazardous material to review its definition of a high-hazard flammable train and require such trains to use more advanced safety and braking equipment.

Controlled release at Ohio derailment site prompts mandatory evacuations

The letter highlighted a number of problems with Norfolk Southern’s response to the crash:

The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and Department of Environmental Protection were not immediately notified of the incident and learned about the crash and ensuing fire involving a number of chemical tanker cars in the hours afterward, Shapiro wrote.

Emergency responders and residents in Pennsylvania were put at risk as a result of Norfolk Southern’s management of the disaster, Shapiro wrote. 

Norfolk Southern failed to work with government officials at the incident command post, instead separating themselves from the incident command structure to conduct independent operational and tactical planning. This forced state and local agencies to react to tactics that were developed unilaterally, Shapiro said.  

The railroad also provided inaccurate information about the impact of the controlled release of chemicals that made protecting the public more difficult in the aftermath of the derailment. It failed to update state and local officials on a change in its plan to release vinyl chloride from all five rail cars carrying the chemical rather that the single rail car Norfolk Southern personnel identified initially. 

Norfolk Southern also did not immediately inform officials of the number of rail cars carrying hazardous materials. 

“Norfolk Southern’s failure to participate in the unified command and share accurate information led to confusion and wide variability in potentially affected population estimates in the downwind plume affecting the commonwealth,” Shapiro told the freight hauler. 

Railroad officials also were unwilling to discuss alternatives to burning off the vinyl chloride. That limited officials’ ability to respond effectively. 

“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 letter says.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.