Governor Josh Shapiro (D-PA) said on Tuesday that Norfolk Southern, the train company at the center of the derailment in Ohio near the western border of Pennsylvania, failed to consider actions beyond the controlled burn of chemicals that allowed the railway to reopen quickly.
Local and state authorities evacuated all residents within one mile of the crash in East Palestine, Ohio, and started the controlled burn of the substances on the vehicle to lower the risk of an explosion. Vinyl chloride, a carcinogen used to manufacture PVC, was released from five train cars in the form of massive plumes of dark smoke visible in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, raising concerns about air and water quality in the Ohio River Basin.
In a letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, Shapiro wrote that the crash, which occurred a quarter mile from the Pennsylvania state line, has produced a “significant impact on the residents, businesses, and environment” in Beaver County. He noted that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency were “not immediately contacted” by Norfolk Southern after the crash and learned of the incident “independently in the first few hours after it occurred.”
Governor Mike DeWine (R-OH) previously told reporters that he and Shapiro had spent hours determining whether they should tolerate the risk of an explosion, which could have jettisoned shrapnel throughout East Palestine, or allow the chemicals to enter the atmosphere through the controlled burn. They chose the latter of the “two bad options” after consulting with regulators and executives with Norfolk Southern.
Shapiro nevertheless added that the company was unwilling to “explore or articulate alternate courses of action” to the controlled burn. “Norfolk Southern response personnel improperly planned tactical response operations without adequate input from elected officials, local response organizations, or state agencies, resulting in a single plan of action to vent and burn all five cars,” he wrote. “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 official said Norfolk Southern also failed to inform authorities of their intention to vent and burn all five cars containing vinyl chloride rather than the single car initially identified by the company. “Norfolk Southern gave inaccurate information and conflicting modeling about the impact of the controlled release that made protective action decision making more difficult in the immediate aftermath of the derailment,” wrote Shapiro, who began his first term last month.
The lack of transparent communication from Norfolk Southern officials, who Shapiro says “separated themselves from the rest of the incident management structure” to conduct their own operational planning, also caused a “lack of awareness” for emergency personnel responding to the incident, he added. The revelation from Shapiro comes as residents reportedly experience worrisome health issues in the days after the controlled burn: one first responder said in an interview with The Daily Wire that he and his colleagues experienced “bad cough, headaches, sore throat, and diarrhea.”