A state Senate committee hearing in Beaver County on Thursday represented one of the first comprehensive efforts to understand the response on the Pennsylvania side of the border to a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3.
Republican Sen. Doug Mastriano led the hearing of the Veteran Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee at Beaver County Community College and invited numerous Pennsylvanians impacted by the derailment, in addition to local and state officials who led the response.
In a hearing that lasted more than five hours and included nearly two dozen speakers, one of the most prominent invited guests was one who didn’t show up: Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw. An empty chair with Shaw’s name on it was placed at the edge of the stage, as Norfolk Southern became the primary punching bag during the hearing.
The night before, Shaw had given his first extended public apology during a CNN town hall, but the absence of any company representatives on Thursday rankled the roughly 200 people who came to the hearing. And Mastriano said he planned to ask the Senate to vote next week to compel testimony from Shaw through a subpoena. “If you have nothing to hide, show up,” Mastriano said.
About a dozen residents testified under oath about how dramatically the accident had altered their lives, endangered their families and animals, upended their livelihoods, reduced their property values, and left them exhausted and distraught. One of the residents brought dead fish he had found in a nearby stream to the hearing, but he was told by organizers that — out of an abundance of caution — he could not bring them in. Several of the speakers broke down in tears as they recounted what had happened.
“Any loud noise I hear now, I believe it’s an explosion, is something bad that’s going to happen,” said Lonnie Miller, an East Palestine resident whose home is 1,800 feet from the derailment site.
In one of the most complete accounts of the state’s disaster response so far, PEMA Director Randy Padfield said Norfolk excluded Pennsylvania leaders from decision-making discussions and refused to explain why the company was in such a rush to vent toxic chemicals from its train cars, hours after saying a much less dangerous option was still on the table. Instead of explaining their decision, Padfield said, the company touted its 200 years of experience and demanded the state get in line.
“I’m not saying that is not the tactic of choice, but they were not able to articulate any other courses of action that were thought through at that point in time,” Padfield said. “And we are trying to understand what changed overnight?” On Monday, Shapiro referred Norfolk Southern to the attorney general’s office for potential criminal prosecution.
Richard Negrin, the acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said Pennsylvania had begun testing private water wells for the first time, despite not legally having jurisdiction to regulate private wells, in order to help reassure residents. Negrin said anyone within a two-mile radius would be included in the tests and that even residents outside that area who have concerns could potentially be included.
Hydrogeologists do not think many Pennsylvania water supplies will be at risk, Negrin said, because the underground water in the area tends to flow west, away from the Pennsylvania border. But his experts also told him that it could take three to six months of testing before they know for sure whether or not any contamination is present.
The DEP had been focused on testing the air and water, Negrin said, because that’s what residents had been asking for, but he said the department would also test the soil of residents concerned about their crops and livestock.
Some Republicans on the committee, as well as some of the residents, called out Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, in large part, for not being a big enough presence during the early stages of the recovery effort. Shapiro visited with some residents earlier this week. Although Shapiro wasn’t present for Thursday’s hearing, several of his most prominent deputies defended their response efforts and directed their own criticism back at Shaw and Norfolk Southern.
The testimony of several residents underlined how the disaster had impacted some of the area’s most vulnerable residents, as they stayed put during the disaster because they couldn’t find an affordable hotel nearby. And some of these same residents decided to take the $1,000 offered by Norfolk Southern, despite the legal advice of some lawyers not to.
“East Palestine, Ohio, is not a wealthy community,” Miller said. “People live paycheck to paycheck and we are being forced to return to our homes that are full of fumes.”
Even though the EPA has said it has conducted more than 500 tests that say the air quality is safe, Miller pointed to accounts of rashes, burning eyes, swollen faces and cases of bronchitis that undermines her trust in the science.
Mastriano said the hearing was intended to prove the safety of the environment around East Palestine, because of continuing skepticism about both Norfolk Southern and the government’s testing efforts.
Miller described how she and other East Palestinians had been staying informed in the absence of swift government or company communication efforts.
“You do not know what to do. You don’t know who to trust. You don’t know where to turn to,” she said. “So my family and I turned to [the] media, social media and TV.”