Pennsylvania Governor Shapiro: Norfolk Southern Conducted Controlled Burn of Vinyl Chloride After Withholding Vital Information

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro (D) distanced himself further from Norfolk Southern in a press statement released on Thursday regarding decision-making following the February 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, one quarter-mile west of Beaver County in Pennsylvania. 

The lengthy statement reads, in part:

Shapiro said his office plans to take direct action against the company, and added the state legislature has interest in reviewing the derailment for potential action as well. […]

He was particularly critical of information provided about the controlled explosion on Feb. 6. He said the company didn’t forewarn agencies initially of their intention to vent and burn all five rail cars that contained vinyl chloride, or inform local and state authorities how many rail cars contributed the hazardous chemical.

“While I appreciate that responding to train derailments presents an array of complex challenges, failure to adhere to well-accepted standards of practice related to incident management and prioritizing an accelerated and arbitrary timely to reopen the rail line injected unnecessary risk and created confusion in the process,” wrote Shapiro.

The governor last week sent a letter to Norfolk Southern President and Chief Executive Officer Alan Shaw last Tuesday underscoring the concerns of many residents and officials from affected areas after a controlled vent and burn of toxic chemicals the train was carrying. Shapiro followed up that letter with an announcement that Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection would conduct water testing in the region, independent of monitoring by the federal government, to determine if environmental safety has worsened.

In an interview with CNN last week, Shapiro characterized the rail company’s handling of the incident as grossly negligent.

“I think Norfolk Southern’s conduct has really been shameful,” he said. “You know, they load themselves up with lobbyists and lawyers and then they give the middle finger to the good people of Pennsylvania. They made this process much more difficult than it needed to be.” 

The governor has faulted Norfolk Southern with failing to effectively coordinate with federal and state responders, failing to alert officials that the company would burn five cars containing vinyl chloride instead of one and declining to “explore or articulate alternate courses of action” to the vent-and-burn plan. 

“They work with such arrogance, such disregard for local communities, local residents,” he said. “That needs to change and I hope it does change as a result of this.” 

Shapiro’s criticisms and his news that the commonwealth would independently test area water are a turnabout from favorable comments the governor made about the response to the derailment in the days after it happened. Initially, Shapiro said the burn went forward “as planned” and led to “no concerning” environmental effects. 

Shapiro’s original approval of the vent-and-burn process has drawn scrutiny from legislators, including his opponent in last years gubernatorial race, Doug Mastriano, who now chairs the state Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee. The Gettysburg-area Republican visited locales near the derailment site on Saturday and announced that he will host a hearing in Beaver County this Thursday to take testimony from concerned residents regarding the response to the incident. The senator is also seeking testimony from Norfolk Southern officials and Shapiro staffers as well as state-emergency officials. 

In a guest column for the Philadelphia-based Broad + Liberty webzine, Mastriano expressed bewilderment that Shapiro did not issue either an emergency declaration or environmental safety guidance. The senator further rebuked the governor for traveling to Glendale, Arizona for the Super Bowl two weekends ago instead of attending to the derailment fallout. 

Despite initial statements from Shapiro that no environmental damage is yet apparent, Mastriano insisted that the potential for harm from the chemical burn is actually vast. The senator noted farmers miles from the site have posted video and photos of dead chickens and discolored eggs while others in the region have attested to “lung issues” and “intense headaches. 

“One of the biproducts of the controlled chemical burning is hydrogen chloride which easily binds onto water such as the vapor of the atmosphere,” Mastriano wrote. “Atmospheric winds have the potential to blow these toxic chemicals across a 200-mile radius according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. On February 10, the EPA confirmed that chemicals from this incident and chemical burn have entered the Ohio River Basin which is home to 25 million people.”

Norfolk Southern has insisted it did properly coordinate with government officials.

“We remain at the command post today working alongside those agencies to keep information flowing from our teams working at the site,” spokesperson Kately Byrd said in a statement.

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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 “Josh Shapiro” by Josh Shapiro. Background Photo “Norfolk Southern Locomotives” by Jud McCranie. CC BY-SA 4.0.


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One Thought to “Pennsylvania Governor Shapiro: Norfolk Southern Conducted Controlled Burn of Vinyl Chloride After Withholding Vital Information”

  1. Clifford B Hoffman

    My opinion is that PA Gov Shapiro is showing his political bent rather than his “serving the citizens of PA task”. The story lead-in doesn’t state that the incident in question didn’t take place in PA. The derailment was in Ohio, the burn was in Ohio; and it’s already being investigated by The federal government agencies tasked with these matters. It appears that the PA Governor is placing substance on headlines over substance.