MONACA – Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee Chairman Doug Mastriano (R-33) today hosted a hearing at Beaver County Community College, where local residents shared their stories in the wake of the Norfolk Southern train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio.
“We want the truth!” Mastriano said at the beginning of the hearing. “The people affected by this disaster have questions and today’s committee hearing is about providing them with answers.”
The Feb. 3 train wreck in East Palestine – which is on the edge of Pennsylvania’s western border – was followed on Feb. 5 by the planned burning of five railroad cars carrying dangerous chemicals.
Mastriano – who previously met individually with many of the local residents who testified and also delivered water to homes following the disaster – called the hearing to give a platform and voice to Pennsylvanians affected by the wreck.
Residents shared their stories of distressed evacuations, fears related to the chemical spill and fire, symptoms of health ailments they are suffering and anger toward the negligent railroad company.
Multiple residents spoke about burning lips, itchy eyes, rashes, diarrhea and other symptoms they attribute to the chemicals released during the train derailment and intentional fire.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health has not yet established a clinic for Beaver County residents. Several of the testifiers said they need one.
In addition to current health concerns, residents spoke about their fears of air, water and soil contamination and the ways it would affect them now and in the future.
“I shouldn’t be afraid to drink my water,” said Laurie O’Connel. “I’m angry.”
“My house is my sanctuary and I feel that’s been taken from me,” said Julie Kent. “Everything we have is invested in our property,” she said, later adding, “Where do we go from here?”
“We have no idea what our property is worth,” said Chris Wells, who proposed property tax abatements due to the inability to assess the value of the land and buildings.
“We’re afraid to live in our homes,” said Amanda Kemmer.
Several residents mentioned the importance of independent air, water and soil testing, saying they don’t trust any test results provided by Norfolk Southern or companies affiliated with it.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Acting Secretary Richard Negrin said the department is actively testing the air and water within a two-mile radius of the crash site. He said the department is beginning to sample the soil.
Multiple testifiers asserted the chemicals don’t abide by lines on a map, and residents outside the two-mile radius testified they are suffering the same health effects as those closer to the crash site.
Negrin said his department would not deny a request for air, water or soil testing outside the two-mile radius, but DEP is focusing primarily on those areas within two miles of the train wreck.
Residents spoke about a confusing evacuation process that left them questioning what to do and where to go.
“There was no place for my family to go,” said Lonnie Miller, who mentioned the closest hotel room she could find was more than an hour away. “You should not be forced to live this way.”
Katie Schwarzwaelder, owner of The Northern Border dog kennel, spoke about evacuating her business on Feb. 5 and taking 30 dogs with her. She detailed the heartache involved in calling clients to tell them they had to pick up their dogs.
The testifier who drew the most attention may have been the one who didn’t show up – Norfolk Southern President Alan Shaw. Mastriano invited Shaw to attend the event and, when the railroad executive failed to show up, the lawmaker placed an empty chair prominently on stage to represent Shaw’s absence.
“Norfolk Southern has caused a terrible amount of heartache for people in this community,” Mastriano said. “They refused to send a representative to sit here and look these people in the eye. It’s absolutely disgusting.”
Mastriano noted the committee may compel Shaw to appear at a future hearing by invoking its subpoena power.
“Norfolk Southern President Alan Shaw evaded accountability today, but he can’t hide from it forever,” Mastriano said. “The people his company has irreparably harmed deserve answers.”
Residents did learn about a new website established by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency to provide a comprehensive array of information and resources for those affected by the train wreck. Residents can visit the new website at www.PEMA.Pa.Gov/Derailment/Pages/Default.aspx.
Media contact: Josh Herman