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Shapiro rips train company for prioritizing track reopening over ‘safer’ approach after derailment

This photo taken with a drone shows the continuing cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar
This photo taken with a drone shows the continuing cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro sent a scathing letter to the president and CEO of Norfolk Southern on Tuesday, calling out the company for making emergency management decisions without consulting state and local leaders and for prioritizing its railroad operations over “a safer overall approach” for local residents and the environment, after a train derailment near East Palestine, Ohio last week.

The derailment last week led to the emergency evacuation of thousands of people in Ohio and a couple dozen in Pennsylvania and has led to widespread concern about the potential contamination of water, soil and air near the derailment.

In the letter, Shapiro said he was calling on the Public Utilities Commission to investigate Norfolk Southern’s response and that he had already discussed the issue with President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the Secretary of Transportation. Shapiro said he was pushing for additional oversight and regulations at the state and federal level. Shapiro accused Norfolk Southern of pursuing “an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line” that created "unnecessary risk" and confusion.

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Just days after the derailment, Shapirocalled an emergency press conference to tell a dozen Pennsylvania residents who hadn’t evacuated yet that their lives and health would be in jeopardy within a few hours if they didn’t evacuate. The new letter from Shapiro makes clear that this last minute announcement came after Norfolk Southern decided to vent toxic chemicals from its train without properly consulting state and local leaders and without fully considering other options.

“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.

Norfolk Southern says it has called Shapiro to try to address his concerns. In response to Shapiro’s letter, the company says it did work with local, state and federal officials in East Palestine and in Pennsylvania and continues to do so. “We remain at the command post today working alongside those agencies to keep information flowing from our teams working at the site,” according to a statement from Kately Byrd, a spokesperson from the company.

Shapiro criticized the company for not contacting the state after the derailment and said that Pennsylvania officials had to begin to take protective action on their own after learning about the derailment independently. Then, Norfolk Southern didn’t participate in “Unified Command,” an emergency response structure that allows emergency response agencies to share information and coordinate. This created confusion, Shapiro’s letter said, and forced state and local officials to react to Norfolk Southern’s unilateral decisions.

One of those decisions was to release the toxic chemical vinyl chloride from five cars without considering alternatives. The company also shared “inaccurate information and conflicting modeling” about the release. Shapiro said the company had originally told the state it was going to vent toxic chemicals from a single car and didn’t notify the state of its intention to vent all five cars.

Shapiro criticized Norfolk Southern for overstating the safety of its rail cars and for its “well known opposition to modernized regulations.” Early reports from the National Transportation Safety Board indicate that a failure of a wheel bearing on one of the rail cars may have caused the accident.

Shapiro acknowledged that federal authorities typically have jurisdiction over railroads but charged the Pennsylvania Utilities Commissions, which has statewide jurisdiction for oversight of the railways, to investigate and issue a report. “Like me, members of the state legislative delegation are troubled by the conduct of Norfolk Southern during this incident,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro called on the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to revisit the need for more advanced safety and braking equipment in highly flammable trains like the one that derailed last week. The Obama administration had proposed requiring the advanced brakes in 2015 after a series of derailments at the time but the Trump administration reversed the decisions in 2017, saying that the cost of the new brakes would be more expensive than any benefits.

Shapiro called on Norfolk Southern’s CEO to respond to his concerns when they file a required report about the accident and explain how it would prevent a similar situation from happening again.

Some residents and companies impacted by the derailment have already filed a lawsuit accusing the company of negligence. Some residents in Pittsburgh are worried about a similar accident occurring in a more populated area.

On Wednesday, the four U.S. Senators representing Ohio and Pennsylvania sent a joint letter to the EPA, asking the agency questions about its response and ability to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.

The four lawmakers also sent a separate letter to the National Transportation Safety Board asking it to look into: whether the railroads have adequate staffing; whether its safety inspections are long enough; whether the addition of electronic braking would prevent future accidents; and whether there need to be additional requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials.

Updated: February 15, 2023 at 3:23 PM EST
This story was updated to add new comments from Norfolk Southern.
Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.