HARRISBURG – The Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, chaired by Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33), heard testimony Monday from Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, who described as a “success” the intentional ignition of dangerous chemicals in five railroad cars following the company’s trainwreck on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, just west of the Pennsylvania border.
“It was a success. It worked,” Shaw said, adding, “It was the right decision to make.”
“That flaming plume of toxic chemicals may have been a ‘success’ for Norfolk Southern and helped to get its trains running again, but it failed to protect the health of local residents,” Mastriano said. “Norfolk Southern’s epic failure is observable in the rashes, headaches, respiratory problems and other health issues that are plaguing local residents.”
While he called the ignition of the rail cars a “success,” Shaw was reluctant to pinpoint who made the decision to ignite the dangerous contents of the railroad cars.
Shaw first tried to place responsibility for the decision on the “unified command” – or group of federal, state and local officials – who led efforts to respond to his company’s trainwreck.
When pressed by Mastriano, Shaw attempted to pin the blame on the local East Palestine fire chief. Shaw didn’t identify him by name, but instead said the leader of the unified command structure – the local fire chief – made the decision to ignite the railroad cars.
“I find it hard to believe the fire chief of a local community made this decision that has ramifications on residents in multiple states,” Mastriano said. “If Shaw really believes the railroad car ignition was a ‘success,’ I would think he would want to give credit to whoever made the decision.”
Mastriano also asked Shaw about potential other options beside setting the railroad cars on fire and was surprised to learn no other options apparently were discussed. Shaw did confirm that PA state officials were included in the unified command structure and evidently did not object to the toxic chemical burn.
“During my time in the military, we always came up with multiple options to address a situation,” Mastriano said. “I’m curious to learn if the railroad car detonation was the only option, or if other options existed, but were withheld from the people who were making these decisions.”
Shaw made bold claims about Norfolk Southern’s commitment to safety, claiming, “We will not operate an unsafe train,” and “We run a safe operation.”
“I don’t believe the East Palestine trainwreck, ignition of several railroad cars full of toxic chemicals and the spread of those chemicals into surrounding communities matches up with his claims about safety,” Mastriano said.
Prior to hearing from Shaw, the committee heard testimony from Andrew Whelton, professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University.
Whelton said the testing that followed the trainwreck is too narrow and should be expanded to consider the levels of chemicals currently not included in the process. If the test is not looking for certain cancer-causing chemicals, he said, it obviously won’t find them.
“The numbers don’t matter. It matters what you test for,” Whelton said. “I tell agencies they need to throw the kitchen sink at it at first.”
Mastriano and his Senate colleagues on the committee asked Shaw during the hearing to provide additional information about the company’s air, water and soil testing process; its safety policies and procedures; the process used to decide to ignite the leaking railroad cars and a list of everyone involved in making that decision.
Mastriano said Shaw may be called again to appear before the committee if it does not receive satisfactory answers to the additional questions posed by committee members.
VIDEO: Mastriano tried to find out who made the decision to ignite the leaking railroad cars and seriously questions Shaw’s response pointing the finger at a local fire chief.
VIDEO: Mastriano questioned the decision to ignite and release toxic chemicals from the wrecked railroad cars.
VIDEO: Mastriano discussed the testing process to ensure the safety of the water, air and soil in the area surrounding the trainwreck.
VIDEO: Mastriano talked about the holistic approach Norfolk Southern must take to help local residents affected by the trainwreck.
VIDEO: Mastriano outlines the next steps the committee may take on this issue.
Media contact: Josh Herman