EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WKBN) – The Pennsylvania House Democratic and Republican Policy Committees held a joint hearing Tuesday on the impact of the Norfolk Southern train derailment.
The hearing was hosted by Reps. Rob Matzie (D-Beaver) and Jim Marshall (R-Beaver). They met with local officials and representatives from the Shapiro administration to discuss the impacts the train derailment on the Ohio border is having on Pennsylvania residents in Beaver County.
The first to testify was PEMA Director Randy Padfield who said that in the initial response, many decisions were made by officials in Ohio but that information was exchanged freely.
Padfield said that the controlled vent and burn was concerning and that many residents and elected officials want more answers about that decision.
“We don’t have all the answers, but the picture is clearer. There is still much to do. We will ensure the safety of residents,” Padfield said.
Padfield said that rail companies have the latitude to do what they need to do and that Norfolk officials have said that they thought they were making the decision to vent burn as part of a “unified command” situation, but Padfield said Pennsylvania did not have a “seat at that table.”
“There needs to be a unified command with all municipalities,” he said.
Padfield mentioned the timing, weather and thermal inversion as elements to consider and who has the authority to make those decisions, such as the one to vent and burn, moving forward.
“There needed to be a more coordinated approach,” said Beaver County Commissioner Daniel Camp said.
Rep. Jessica Benham, D-36th District, asked about lessons learned and what she can take back to Harrisburg.
“Educating residents on what travels through their communities,” Camp said. “I don’t think people realized the chemicals on the railroad, and it’s a surprise when something happens.”
Richard Negrin from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said that testing of the air and water continues. He also said the DEP doesn’t typically test private wells, but it has made an exception in this case. He added that all testing has shown that no samples have exceeded safe levels of any containment.
Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Secretary Russ Redding said that soil monitoring continues and as well as testing on animals. He said that no animal testing showed significant issues.
“Maybe health effects are not immediately obvious,” he said, adding that testing will continue to get assurances for those that produce and consume food.
Negrin said that they are pursuing agricultural losses to be paid for by Norfolk.
“If these farms cannot sell what is here. We should have Norfolk Southern cover those potential losses,” Negrin said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health continues health assessments at the community health clinic in Beaver County. Common complaints include headaches, anxiety, and nose and ear issues.
Questions began to center around the information that Pennsylvania received about the cars carrying vinyl chloride, which ones were marked for a possible failure and how the decision to vent and burn was made.
Padfield said they were in constant contact with officials in Ohio and teams on the ground. He said that he did receive some initial modeling of the incident and that when Norfolk Southern officials arrived on the scene, their response was somewhat segregated and the flow of information was a bit more difficult to obtain, however, updated modeling was provided and the concern began to center around the one rail car.
Concerns remain about long-term effects in Beaver and Lawrence counties. Discussion centered around behavioral health and physical health concerns that may come up in the future when “scientific attribution” will not be available. Lawmakers said it will take a “significant” investment.
Padfield said that there is work being done to provide federal funding for long-term plans to address health issues.
A question from Abigail Salisbury, D-34th District, was met with resounding applause. Salisbury said that she was told that local and state lawmakers have given away their power to the railroad companies and wanted to know what they can do as a governing body to change that.
“That deserves exploration,” Padfield said.
Lawsuits by individuals, counties and even the Commonwealth were discussed. Ohio Attorney General David Yost announced Monday Ohio’s lawsuit against Norfolk Southern.