Norfolk Southern’s decision to call for the burning of five derailed train cars in East Palestine, Ohio, was “jaw-dropping” and a consequence of poor communication by the railroad, a local emergency management official told a Senate panel on Thursday.
Eric Brewer, director and chief of hazardous materials response for the emergency services department in Beaver county, Pennsylvania, just over the state line from East Palestine, described to the chamber’s environment and public works committee an initially chaotic response to the 3 February derailment.
“The boots on the ground crews were great to work with. It seems as bosses or management gets there, that’s where the communication failures start,” Brewer said.
The derailment of the train carrying vinyl chloride – used to produce PVC plastic – in the small town has left its more than 4,700 residents complaining of health effects like headaches, and fearing long-term pollution of the area. An interim report released last month by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) noted the train’s crew received an alert about an overheating wheel bearing and tried to slow the train before it came off the tracks.
Brewer, whose agency was among those responding to the accident, described how Norfolk Southern initially raised concerns that one of the derailed tank cars was “starting to heat up” and could explode, leading to local officials creating an evacuation zone around the site of the accident. The railroad then suggested destroying that tank car in a controlled detonation, he said.
“We were assured this was the safest way to mitigate the problem,” he said. Then, Norfolk Southern asked to burn five cars, rather than just one.
“This changed the entire plan, as it would now impact a much larger area. I think this confusion was probably a result of the lack of communication from Norfolk Southern and the fact that they they weren’t present during these planning meetings,” Brewer said.
He later added: “The decision to go from the one tank car to the five was jaw-dropping,” and “that’s probably why we’re here today”.
His critique was echoed by Anne Vogel, director of Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency, who said: “I do believe there were quite a few gaps in communication and missteps in the very early hours following the derailment … things could have been handled better in the beginning hours.”
However, both Brewer and Vogel agreed that the communication issues had been ironed out since then. “I do believe that those gaps in communications have been addressed. I believe that teams are working well together on the ground today.”
The Democratic-led committee’s hearing featured the first appearance before Congress by Norfolk Southern’s CEO, Alan Shaw, who was pressed by lawmakers on how far his company would go to take care of Ohio and Pennsylvania residents affected by the derailment.
“I’m terribly sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the folks of that community. And yes, it’s my personal commitment and Norfolk Southern’s commitment that we’re going to be there for as long as it takes to help East Palestine thrive and recover,” Shaw said.
He also said that though the NTSB report found that the train’s crew was operating in a safe manner, “it is clear the safety mechanisms in place were not enough.”
Shaw was more taciturn about whether he would support the Railway Safety Act of 2023, proposed by Democratic and Republican lawmakers from Ohio and Pennsylvania, which would levy financial and regulatory consequences on railroads involved in accidents.
“We are committed to the legislative intent to make rail safer. Norfolk Southern runs a safe railroad and it’s my commitment to improve that safety and make our safety culture the best in the industry,” Shaw said.
Another topic of concern for senators was the extent of pollution in East Palestine and the surrounding communities. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator Debra Shore said indoor air monitoring had not yet turned up any sign of widespread vinyl chloride contamination.
“As of March 4 approximately 600 homes have been screened through this program and no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride have been identified,” Shore said, adding that air monitors haven’t detected any organic compounds “above levels of health concerns” since the derailed cars were extinguished.
The EPA’s assurances were not enough for East Palestine resident Jessica Conard, who traveled to Washington for the hearing.
“I think that what they’re saying is true. I think that the reports are true, I think that the tests are accurate. But I just think that it’s a matter of time before our groundwater is contaminated,” she told the Guardian.
Both of Ohio’s senators testified before the committee, and said they were determined to make sure the town’s long-term needs weren’t forgotten as public attention recedes.
“These communities have been abandoned too many times before,” said the Democratic senator Sherrod Brown. “My job, our job, is to hear their voice and to demand corporate accountability to bring this town back to the vibrant community we know that it can be again.”
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