Pennsylvania Emergency Director Says Rail Companies Have ‘Broad Latitude’ to Handle Derailments

Alongside fellow lawmakers at the Darlington Fire Company on Tuesday, Pennsylvania State Representative Eric Nelson (R-Greensburg) asked Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Acting Director Randy Padfield who has the final say over what to do with a wrecked train carrying toxic chemicals: the rail company or state government? 

At the Pennsylvania House Bipartisan Policy Committee hearing last week, Nelson said he wanted to know whether Pennsylvania emergency and environmental officials could decide whether to approve or quash plans to incinerate a certain number of rail cars on such a train if it crashed in the Keystone State.

Padfield said he believes the law gives train corporations “broad latitude” to proceed with the kind of vent-and-burn strategy that Norfolk Southern executed last month after one of its trains carrying hazardous vinyl chloride went off the rails in East Palestine, Ohio, a few hundred feet from the Pennsylvania border. He could not guarantee state officials could override such a response if they thought it was wrong.

“The rail companies are provided broad latitude under federal laws that permit them what they can do,” Padfield explained. “The challenge is, that may have been the best of all the bad options for them, but… it’s hard to tell whether that was, you know, that was the only option that they could consider in this type of situation. So, when it comes down to it, within the right of way of the rail, I think they have liberty to be able to do what they need to do or what they feel they need to do.”

Early last month, Norfolk Southern incinerated five of its train’s cars, causing a massive discharge of hydrogen chloride and phosgene gas into the air. Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro (D) originally backed the “controlled burn” and said it went “as planned” but later reversed himself, claiming he was not informed that the rail corporation would vent and burn five cars rather than only one. 

After hearing Padfield discuss the incident, Nelson suggested the legislature examine what it can do to empower the state to direct the response after a train carrying poisonous cargo crashes on its soil. 

“The opportunity of who has that authority moving forward is maybe something, you know,  that the legislature can take a look at because that larger burn then resulted in a much larger exposure to the residents,” he said.

Freshman State Representative Abigail Salisbury (D-Braddock) registered the same concern. 

“I have dealt with Norfolk Southern in my capacity as borough council president and I was told in no uncertain terms by multiple different Pennsylvania departments… that we’ve given away our power to do anything about these railroads,” she said. “…[W]e have Department of Environmental Protection, we have [PEMA], we have all these different layers of things working together…, but ultimately it sounds as if the decision about what do was just made by Norfolk Southern.”

In response, Padfield characterized the desire to assert the state’s right to take charge as “an ongoing discussion.” He added that, ideally, the rail operator and the government would reach a “mutual understanding” of how to proceed after a wreck, which he said Norfolk Southern did not facilitate. 

Since the vent-and-burn was executed, denizens of Beaver and Lawrence Counties have reported various unwholesome effects including dead livestock, compromised property values, visibly discolored streams as well as increased frequency of nausea, migraines and diarrhea. 

Testifying at Tuesday’s hearing, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Debra Bogen said over 500 people have come to her department seeking treatment for physical or mental health due to the derailment’s aftermath. Over half of those individuals were 60 or older. 

Bogen also said more than 125 area residents have responded to surveys administered by her agency regarding the incident, with 85 percent of respondents saying they experienced at least one symptom and 31 percent observing symptoms in their pets. Sixty-eight percent of respondents said they are considering not planting in their gardens this year for fear that emitted chemicals could contaminate their vegetables. 

Although the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has not detected toxicity in the region’s groundwater that exceeds safety thresholds, according to DEP Acting Secretary Richard Negrin, groundwater “takes a lot longer than just a few weeks” to show contamination. He promised that environmental testing will continue for the foreseeable future.  

State agencies have incurred major costs responding to the wreck’s aftereffects. Shapiro and Norfolk Southern have agreed to a plan whereby the corporation will reimburse the commonwealth approximately $7.4 million for its remediation efforts. About $1 million from the agreement will go toward aiding affected residents. 

Additional remuneration for those residents may come via legislation authored by State Senator Doug Mastriano (R-Gettysburg) to make emergency grants available to pay healthcare expenses, mitigate income losses, fund decontamination of properties and help people relocate. That bill passed the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee last week and awaits consideration by the full chamber. 

Norfolk Southern has unveiled a six-point safety-enhancement agenda in response to public outcry. The plan entails using more bearing detectors to sense overheating, creating more advanced sensors, utilizing axle-vibration-sensing equipment, deploying more artificial intelligence to discern defects, and participating in the Federal Railroad Administration‘s Confidential Close Call Reporting system.

The derailment has led some politicians to take a more critical view of Norfolk Southern and rail operators generally.

“There are a lot of concerns and questions out there as it pertains to rail safety and what we can do as a state rather than at the federal level, but we will explore each and every option available to us as we continue this dialogue and gather more information,” Rob Matzie (D-Ambridge) said at Tuesday’s hearing. 

Last year, Matzie enjoyed a friendly relationship with Norfolk Southern, receiving $2,000 from the Norfolk Southern Corporation Good Government Fund in 2022. Pennsylvania legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle also received thousands of dollars from the political action committee last year as did both parties’ House campaign committees.

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Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Randy Padfield” by PEMA. Background Photo “Norfolk Southern Train” by Emmett Tullos. CC BY 2.0.


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