When you take a deep dive into what happened in East Palestine, Ohio, you really start to wonder what we would face if it happened here

April 3 – A year ago in February a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, causing massive damage to property, as well as the well-being of the people not only in the area, but into Pennsylvania, as well. 

The train had been carrying vinyl chloride, a highly-explosive chemical that was unstable. It was actually used as a weapon during World War I. 

Officials decided a controlled release of the chemical from the rail cars was the best option and residents were forced to evacuate their homes. 

The long-term effects, though, are continuing even a year later. 

State Senator Doug Mastriano chairs the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee and held a hearing in Beaver County, PA, last week to get a feel for what is still going on. 

Mastriano said, “I have oversight of all emergency operations across the state. That’s my committee, and so there’s a lot of power with the governor, but in the Senate we have oversight, so it’s exercising my power as a committee chair with oversight on that emergency and the state’s response and to hear from the citizens.”

In Franklin County, there are trains all over the place and that’s why it is relevant to us. 

Mastriano said, “It does matter. So if we fail, the people in Western Pennsylvania, in Darlington or eastern Ohio, you could expect the same treatment of us here and that’s one thing that I don’t want to happen. So the oversight hearing has several reasons for it. First off, I needed to hear from the citizens, many of the same people I heard from a year ago when I had my initial hearing. They’re abandoned and forgotten. Their voice needs to be heard. I spoke with the administration. I said, look, my intent is to hear from the victims and witnesses. I can include the administration. Last time we did, the hearing went on for over five hours. I said but I prefer if you’re amenable to this and I’ll give you a letter laying out what we found and then you guys can respond. Two secretaries from the administration said they were good with that approach. So this is nothing more than trying to give the people a voice. The bottom line is it’s a bad situation. They’re suffering health issues, uncertainty, questions about whether the water or soil air is safe. I was only there for a day and a half and I had all the classic earmarks of being exposed to a chemical agent. I had a burning throat. You could hear during the hearing that I started coughing. My eyes were burning. My skin started breaking out in rashes. I had a splitting migraine headache which are all classic cases of what happens out there when you’re exposed to this toxic chloride phosphine gas.” 

Darlington, PA, is about a mile from where the train derailment occurred. 

Michele Jansen of NewsTalk 103.7FM pointed out, “When they burned the toxic material from the tankers, the plume went mostly towards Pennsylvania. The wind blows normally west to east and so that plume definitely contaminated parts of Pennsylvania as compared to where the original spill might have been. I find it interesting to look at Shapiro. He does give up on his website what happened in Pennsylvania at the Norfolk derailment one year later. They claim that they have ensured Pennsylvanians have the resources needed to recover and rebuild and protect the public health and safety of Pennsylvanians in Beaver and Lawrence counties. They’ve been engaged with local communities and first responders continuously. Well, we know that there’s a bit of truth there, and we’ll continue to work with them as long as necessary. Then they go on to say that they’ve been doing all the proper testing and they’re watching out for people’s health. I find it pretty amazing because that counters the testimony that was heard. That is not what those residents have experienced and they can claim all they want that they’ve been giving them all the resources they need to recover. Those people do not feel like they are getting that.” 

Pat Ryan of NewsTalk 103.7FM noted, “You can only do so much so fast in the machine that it is. So you’ve got to temper that. You hear some people and yet you also see some of the action that’s being taken by the railroad. So where do you think the reality is on this one?”

Mastriano said, “I went to East Palestine the day before the hearing. I went down to Leslie Run. That’s where I was exposed. There was direct contamination there. In East Palestine there’s a lot of activity by Norfolk Southern. They have contamination tanks where I assume they’re putting the contaminated soil. The EPA has a welcome center in the middle of town. Come on in, we’ll kind of answer your questions. It was closed. I would have loved to have gone in there to see if they’re actually answering questions or spinning some kind of political point of view. I fear it’s the latter. When I stopped on a public road adjacent to the location of Ground Zero where they did this uncontrolled burn, which was unnecessary according to the NTSB. They have traffic people they’ve rented in white pickup trucks with lights on and they kept on going on my tail. I’m pulled off on a public road, with their lights on. I sent one of my staff out. I said just see what this guy wants. I was ignoring him. We’re taking pictures. Oh, you can’t take pictures here. You need permission. Yeah, this is America. Go away. I get it. He’s doing his job. But what are we hiding, Norfolk Southern? Why? Why this approach? You should be transparent. Come on in, we’re not afraid to show you what’s going on. So it’s a little bizarre.” 

There is work being done at the site of the derailment. 

Mastriano said, “Not in Pennsylvania. I didn’t see any activity by the federal government or the state government in Pennsylvania.”

The committee will have a report for the governor. 

Mastriano said, “The sad thing is last year when I did that five hour long hearing, many of the same people testified and they shared the same concerns they had last year forward to this year and in the presence of about five of the governor’s secretaries and the governor’s legislative liaison who has since resigned in shamed for sexually harassing women. They all heard from these people. They had access to the people there. If I was a secretary I’d grab them and lay out your concerns and they had not been addressed and they were in the presence of the governor’s people. When it happened last year, 3 February the accident happened and the cars were on fire and the catastrophic decisions were made two days later to set fire to eight of the cars and come to find out according to the NTSB that it was not necessary. The cars were burning. So it was a business decision. For greed. Get the trains running again, to burn those cars because it would have taken weeks to empty those cars in a safe manner. Additionally, while this is going on, our governor’s fresh in the seats, sworn in only three weeks before, what is he doing? Instead of being on watch and sitting on top of this with PEMA. He runs out to California, is at the Grammys, getting selfies with Smokey Robinson. He comes back to Pennsylvania and flies to Arizona for the Super Bowl. He’s having a good time with Governor Katie Hobbs in Arizona while these decisions are being made. He was missing an action. As a result of his delinquency bad decisions were made. He signed off on this and it was a bad idea.” 

Ryan said, “We’re lucky to have you in our neighborhood. If something happens in Chambersburg, you’re upstairs. Where’s the state Senator? Where’s the state Rep? Where’s the Congress? Where’s the Senators in that footprint out there? Where are the lawmakers out there? Where are they to be found?”

Mastriano said, “Their state Senator was present. He hosted us. Actually he coordinated the event with us in Darlington this past week. So right now it’s on the governor and the governor is missing in action. He has the executive authority. Why did he not, for instance, activate the National Guard? That would have been one of the first things I would have done, not in hindsight. I said this last year when it was happening. I would have mobilized the National Guard, got our water purification teams deployed. I would have sent MPs up to secure the area. I would have deployed assets from various units across the state to create temporary shelters in these abandoned malls and warehouses, so people had somewhere to go with themselves, with their pets, with their animals.” 

Jansen added, “I also want to point out they do have, supposedly they’ve been doing the testing, the water and the soil, now we’ve heard from residents where they feel like they’re just testing the water’s surface. Obviously, the direct spill happened over in Ohio, but again, that plume and its effects. They only went two miles out to get things and so that also bothers people. What if I’m 15 miles away? How do we know I haven’t been affected? There is an independent group that they got to do the testing. They do have a report that they’ve just released, a year later, but in their own report that Shapiro put out, they admitted that the understanding of the impacts of this derailment continue to grow. This is a year out. And we remain committed to long term recovery efforts of the affected community. So somewhat admitting we still don’t know where the end of this is, even though it feels like they didn’t do the testing maybe as far out as they should have. I’m a little worried about the health of the people because I think we heard a lot of complaints as I haven’t been tested. There’s things going on in my body and my doctors are telling me you can’t get tested for it and I see where they comment on that and they say in Darlington they had a Health Resource Center set up for a month, for a little more than a month in 2023. These people have ongoing problems. Why aren’t they still helping them with monitoring their health?”

Mastriano said, “This shows you the benefit of these hearings because it is to hold the governor accountable. The governor has the final say on this, but we do have oversight and get to expose what went right and what went wrong. I don’t do these Ted Cruz political hits. I want to find out the truth, find out what the needs are and get them addressed. I’m not in it for any gain. So last year, when we held the hearing, the people were complaining that there was a health clinic in East Palestine but they weren’t allowed to go there. They were turned away as Pennsylvanians and with the secretary of health present in the room, we got Pennsylvania to create a temporary health station as well in Darlington to help the people. It was a rough start, but it turned out okay in the end. Additionally, at the hearing last year, initially Norfolk Southern decided they were only going to do this one mile window and that’s where the fallout was crashing down, a mile out. I was standing a mile away from ground zero last year. There was this green black ooze. It was a fallout from the chemical burn, but people further out were complaining of health issues and I believe them. Then in the presence of the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Health, they promised to go out as far as they needed to do testing. We’re not seeing that happening. We heard one lady testify. I think she’s five miles out. She has severe health problems, her husband does and daughter does as well. They were all three present in the room last week with us. She was able to grab Shapiro at an event and explain to her it took a phone call from Shapiro to the EPA to get testing of her location. You’re never going to get tested if it takes that level of intervention. In fact, the EPA was shocked and asked who are you? When they called the lady complaining of health issues, what connections do you have to the governor? She’s like I’m just a person. So to his credit, Shapiro jumped in and helped one person, but there’s thousands of people that have the same situation, and who’s going to help them?”

Jansen added, “We have to look at that to say who’s going to help us in Waynesboro, if such a thing happens? Or in Chambersburg or in Greene Township? There’s just lots of areas where we could be affected by something similar.”