The president and chief executive officer of Norfolk Southern, Alan Shaw, appeared before the Pennsylvania Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee on Monday.
The committee had subpoenaed him earlier in the month to speak to the group about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and the decisions made in its aftermath.
The release and burning of vinyl chloride from the cars on February 6 produced a massive black cloud over Beaver County, increasing health and safety fears in the area.
Shaw began by issuing another apology to the residents of East Palestine and those in western Pennsylvania.
“I am determined to make this right,” he said to the committee. “Norfolk Southern continues to make good on its promise to clean the site safely, thoroughly and with urgency. You have my personal commitment. We will get the job done and we will help these communities thrive.”
The committee, headed by Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) and Sen. Katie Muth (D-Chester), did not hold back with the questions of the CEO.
“Who was the trigger man?” Mastriano asked Shaw, while Muth said “There seems to be some confusion on whose idea this burn was. I don’t know how anyone can say that it worked or that no harm was done.”
Shaw responded that the decision to “vent and burn” was made by a unified command group led by a local fire chief. He said the unified command included unspecified “federal, state, and local agencies from Pennsylvania and Ohio.”
“I find it hard to believe that the local fire chief would be the one making the decision to set an explosion off to ignite eight carloads’ worth of toxic chemicals,” Mastriano countered.
PEMA Director Randy Padfield had said previously that Norfolk Southern 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.
On Monday, Shaw said that a burn was necessary to avoid a “catastrophic explosion” that could have caused a toxic cloud and sent shrapnel flying up to two miles.
“It’s important to remember that the vent and burn worked,” said Shaw, noting that testing by Ohio and Pennsylvania agencies has shown that air and water is uncontaminated.
He continued to stress his corporation’s assistance to the affected population, including the initial $7.5 million commitment to reimburse first responders and help the communities recover.
Muth was unimpressed.
“Don’t tell me everything’s fine and not give us any data,” Muth said. “Why do you need all these compensation funds if everything’s fine and there’s no contamination?”