A first responder tasked with keeping the public safe in the wake of the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, testified Thursday that a decision by Norfolk Southern to conduct a controlled release of chemicals from five tank cars instead of just one was "jaw-dropping."
Eric Brewer, Director and Chief of Hazardous Materials Response at Pennsylvania’s Beaver County Department of Emergency Services – just across the Ohio border – made the comment during a Senate hearing as Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw vowed to lawmakers that his company will be in the area for "as long as it takes to help East Palestine thrive and recover."
"The decision to go from the one tank car to the five was jaw dropping... just because of the impact," Brewer said.
Brewer said around 48 hours after the Feb. 3 derailment, his department received a call from their counterparts in Columbiana County, Ohio, advising them that "railroad officials were concerned about one of the tank cars starting to heat up."
"There is a possibility of explosion and we should consider a one-mile evacuation," Brewer recalled being told. "Ohio officials notified us that the one-mile radius would now be from the leak oil address. This would add additional residents from Beaver County in the one-mile evacuation zone."
The next morning, Brewer said as first responders gathered at a command center in East Palestine, "we learned Norfolk Southern wanted to do a controlled detonation of the tank car in question."
"We were assured this was the safest way to mitigate the problem," Brewer told lawmakers.
But then in subsequent meetings, Brewer says first responders learned that Norfolk Southern now wanted to do a controlled detonation – or release – on "five of the tank cars rather than just the one.
"This changed the entire plan as it would now impact a much larger area,"
Shaw later admitted during the hearing Thursday that the private owner of one of the at-risk rail cars containing vinyl chloride, which was subject to the controlled release, wasn’t in the room when the decision was made to vent and burn it.
"I’ve received reports that they weren’t -- so they weren’t in the room?" Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., asked the Norfolk Southern CEO.
"No sir, not to my knowledge," Shaw replied.
"I just see that kind of hard to believe the considering that it's their car, it's their responsibility, and they weren't even considered before this decision to vent and burn it in the middle of a town. Doesn’t that seem like possibly a mistake there?" Mullin responded.
"Sir, a unified command was focused solely on the health and safety of the community," Shaw countered before Mullins cut him off.
"The people that was in charge [of] the car should probably have a say in that to make sure we know the best way to dispose of it," Mullin said.