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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Norfolk Southern’s ‘Timeline’ to Reopen Rail Line Scrutinized

Alternative plans went unexplored, Shapiro said, that would have kept the rail line closed longer, but posed less danger to first responders, residents and the environment...

(Christen Smith, The Center Square) State and local leaders said this week that Norfolk Southern’s response to a train derailment near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border ignored best practices and prioritized speed over safety.

In a letter sent to the railroad’s chief executive offer, Pennsylvania Democrat Gov. Josh Shapiro said he will hold Norfolk Southern accountable “for any and all impacts” that come as a result of hazardous chemicals leeching into the air and ground after 50 cars jumped the track on Feb. 3 across the state line in East Palestine, Ohio.

The accident forced residents in an area stretching 1-mile by 2-miles, including parts of western Beaver County, to evacuate while the railroad conducted a controlled release of five train cars carrying vinyl chloride. The chemicals, Shapiro said during a Feb. 6 news conference, could have exploded and released toxic fumes and deadly shrapnel across the region.

Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington, told The Center Square the accident left her “deeply concerned with the health and safety of those residents as well as the first responders that selflessly endangered their own lives to protect others.”

“I share many of the concerns raised in that letter,” she added.

So far, no adverse health effects have been recorded since the incident, The Center Square previously reported. But Shapiro and other state lawmakers said, despite the complexity of the accident, Norfolk Southern rushed to reopen the rail line based on an “arbitrary timeline” that created more risk and confusion.

A spokeswoman for Norfolk Southern told The Center Square on Wednesday the railroad’s “top priority” remains the residents of East Palestine and the surrounding region.

The railroad also is “committed to ensuring health and safety through ongoing environmental monitoring and support for their needs.”

Rachel Bassler, spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said Tuesday nearly 400 homes underwent voluntary screening after the controlled release ended on Feb. 8, with no vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride detected. An additional 65 residences are pending review, she said.

Norfolk Southern said it arrived on scene in the immediate aftermath of the derailment and began coordinating with local officials, including those from Pennsylvania.

In his letter, however, Shapiro said railroad personnel sequestered themselves from the rest of the incident management team to create tactical and operational strategies without the input of key state and local officials.

More confusion followed when the company offered conflicting models about the impact of the controlled release plan and kept officials in the dark about the number of cars in need of venting and burning. Alternative plans went unexplored, Shapiro said, that would have kept the rail line closed longer, but posed less danger to first responders, residents and the environment.

“Norfolk Southern’s well known opposition to modernized regulations require further scrutiny and investigation to limit the devastating effects of future accidents on peoples’ lives, property, business and environment,” he said.

Shapiro asked the Public Utility Commission to investigate the railroad’s conduct and urged the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to reexamine what constitutes a high-hazard flammable train, as well as the need for regulations to carry more advanced safety and braking equipment.

Bartolotta likewise called on the Senate to schedule a hearing to better understand the causes of the derailment and the emergency response that followed.

“Most importantly, this will allow us to learn how Norfolk Southern, and entities like it, can work more closely with our state and local emergency responders should such a dangerous incident happen again in the future,” she said.

The railroad said its open to continuing the discussion and will stay at the command post, working alongside state agencies to “keep information flowing.”

A spokeswoman said the railroad called Shapiro to discuss his concerns and “look forward” to engaging with him more soon.

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