Lt. Gov. Austin Davis (D) addresses the Pennsylvania Press Club on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023 (Capital-Star photo).
Lt. Gov. Austin Davis said it’s time for Congress to step up even as the state and federal government continue to deal with the long-term implications of a fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio earlier this month.
In an appearance before the Pennsylvania Press Club on Monday, Davis, a former Democratic state House lawmaker from Pittsburgh, was asked how he’d rate the state and federal response to the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train — just miles from the Pennsylvania border — that was loaded with toxic chemicals.
Already an environmental disaster, the train derailment has become an equally toxic political fight, with Republicans accusing the Democratic Biden administration of not prioritizing the accident, even as the White House is stepping up its support for Ukraine’s war against Russia.
“I think they have been responsive,” Davis told a mixed crowd of journalists, business leaders, public relations professionals, and a group of high school students who’d gathered in a hotel ballroom to hear him speak.
“I know [Gov. Josh] Shapiro was out [there] with the EPA administrator last week,” he said “We’ve been out there a number of times. I think we need to continue to monitor the environment, and they need to continue to make sure the water and air quality is safe for the people who live there.”
Shapiro did travel to East Palestine last week, where he blasted Norfolk-Southern for what he said was the freight hauler’s “arrogance and incompetence” in an incident that displaced and sickened residents.
“The combination of greed, incompetence and lack of concern for our residents is absolutely unacceptable to me,” Shapiro said in a joint appearance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
In the days following the Feb. 3 derailment of 50 cars of one of its freight trains, the company conducted a controlled release of vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, from five of the cars, rather than wait for a possible explosion.
The fiery release created a cloud of black smoke, and raised concerns about pollution and health effects for residents in the area near the wreck, which included Darlington Township in Beaver County, north of Pittsburgh.
Regan said his office had ordered Norfolk Southern to conduct “all necessary actions associated with the cleanup from the East Palestine train derailment.” The railroad “will clean up all contamination in soil and water” and be responsible for transporting the contamination “to ensure that residents are not impacted further,” the Capital-Star previously reported.
The work will be done to the EPA’s specifications, Regan continued, and Norfolk Southern will reimburse the agency for the cleaning services conducted by its staff and experts, as an additional layer of insurance.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection also announced that it would conduct independent water sampling to monitor water contamination risks related to the train derailment.
Shapiro’s comments in East Palestine came a week after the Democratic governor released a sharply worded letter, sent to Norfolk Southern, criticizing its handling of the derailment in its earliest hours.
“Like me, members of our state legislative delegation are troubled by the conduct of Norfolk Southern during this incident,” Shapiro wrote. “As they proceed with their review and oversight responsibilities, I have pledged the full cooperation of my administration in order to help them facilitate holding your company accountable to Pennsylvanians.”
On Monday, Davis said the administration had made a “criminal referral” to the state Attorney General’s Office, clearing the way for that agency to open its own probe of the accident.
“I think a better response could be Congress taking action against more folks … and making sure we hold them accountable for the things that they’ve done,” Davis said. “Because the reality is this could have been in any community, and there are clearly laws and regulations that need to be changed to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
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