Pa. Senate committee advances emergency response proposals

The GOP-controlled panel also announced that Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw will appear before lawmakers during a hearing scheduled for Monday, March 20, 2023

By: - March 8, 2023 3:00 pm
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, attends the Senate Education Committee Hearing held at the Pennsylvania Capitol on May 24, 2022 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, attends the Senate Education Committee Hearing held at the Pennsylvania Capitol on May 24, 2022 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).

Responding to last month’s train derailment in Ohio — just a few miles from the Pennsylvania border — a state Senate committee approved a series of bills related to emergency response and supporting commonwealth residents affected by the Feb. 3 crash.

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee voted in favor of three pieces of legislation that would require Senate confirmation for a state official responsible for emergency response, create a grant program for Pennsylvania residents affected by the train crash, and recognize the derailment’s impact on Pennsylvania residents and urge Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.

The GOP-controlled panel also announced that Alan Shaw will appear before lawmakers during a hearing scheduled for Monday, March 20, 2023. His expected testimony comes after the 11-member panel issued a subpoena, requesting that the president and CEO of the railroad company discuss the train derailment in East Palestine and subsequent disaster response.

Two days after the crash, hundreds of residents near the site were ordered to evacuate while the company released hazardous materials carried by five rail cars to avoid a possible explosion.

Officials lifted the evacuation order on Feb. 8 and have said that testing indicates no water or air contamination. Residents, however, have complained about feeling sick since returning home.

The committee also issued a subpoena for documents related to the crash.

Here’s a look at the bills, which now go to the full chamber for consideration:

Senate Bill 433

Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, authored legislation that, if approved by the General Assembly and signed by the governor, would require Senate confirmation of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency director.

The existing process lets the governor appoint someone to serve as the PEMA director, but they are not subject to Senate approval, confirming their service in the role. The current PEMA director is Randy Padfield, who was first appointed in 2019.

“This in no way limits, I believe, a governor’s ability to make a selection,” Baker told lawmakers on the committee.

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Instead, Baker argued that additional review from the Senate during a confirmation process allows for increased accountability, improved communication, and better coordination between government agencies when responding to emergencies.

“This is not in any way a slight to the individual serving currently,” Baker added. “I have long believed that this position should be elevated to a cabinet-level post, holding that important responsibility.”

Former Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed legislation that would have required Senate confirmation for the PEMA director. Baker, however, hopes the Shapiro administration will “better understand” reforming the review process.

Senate Bill 508

Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, proposed creating an emergency grant program to help Pennsylvanians affected by the train derailment.

The one-time grant program would benefit residents and business owners within 15 miles of the crash site. Mastriano said the testimony from residents during a prior committee hearing in Beaver County helped determine the distance requirement but noted that a waiver process could help those outside the window.

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The grant program, if implemented, does not yet have a dollar amount attached to it. PEMA would establish an application program to evaluate grant requests from applicants and administer funds upon approval.

Officials would consider proximity to the crash, relocation expenses, medical bills, and loss of business to determine approval.

Senate Resolution 59

The Senate committee advanced a resolution from Mastriano that recognizes the environmental impact that the train derailment and subsequent release of hazardous materials to avoid an explosion has had on Pennsylvania residents, specifically in Beaver County.

The resolution, which cites complaints from residents about feeling sick after the crash, also calls on Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.

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