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Smiling Norfolk Southern CEO defends controversial decision, claims breach of rail cars and dispersal of trench-warfare gas in Ohio was the 'right move'
Image source: YouTube video, WKBN - Screenshot

Smiling Norfolk Southern CEO defends controversial decision, claims breach of rail cars and dispersal of trench-warfare gas in Ohio was the 'right move'

The CEO of Norfolk Southern told reporters Sunday outside his multimillion-dollar mansion in Atlanta that blowing up the derailed train cars laden with deadly chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, was the "right move."

This suggestion from Alan Shaw, paid $4.5 million a year, comes amid intensifying scrutiny of his company's accident-prone history, soaring profits, and possibly slipshod remediation efforts in the wake of what may be a significant ecological disaster.

What's the background?

Norfolk Southern Railroad just celebrated "double-digit percentage growth in revenue and ... record revenue and operating income," noting in its end-of-year financial report that it had raked in $12.7 billion in 2022, up 14% over the previous year. The railway managed this despite reportedly accounting for over half the hazmat damages involving rail transportation in the U.S. last year.

The New York Times reported that the rate of accidents on the company's railway has increased in each of the last four years.

Albers, Illinois, for instance, was swept by 20,000 gallons of methyl methacrylate monomer, a combustible liquid, on Sept. 19, 2022, after a Norfolk Southern derailment. Sandusky, Ohio, similarly was streaked with spillage, this time 20,000 gallons of paraffin wax in October 2022.

Unlike Albers and Sandusky, East Palestine did not simply suffer a chemical spill in an area where, according to the Ohio EPA, residents' source of drinking water has a "high susceptibility to contamination."

The rail company conducted a so-called "controlled release" of a dangerous carcinogen on Feb. 6, three days after its 150-car train derailed.

The alleged 'right move'

According to the Review, explosives were used to create holes in the derailed tanks to enable the slow release of the deadly chemicals into nearby trenches dug into the ground. Flares lined the trenches, which ignited the chemical over the course of days.

TheBlaze previously reported that the initial reasoning provided for the controlled release was that it might prevent a "catastrophic tanker failure," which allegedly could have resulted in a massive explosion, throwing fumes and shrapnel a far distance.

Kimberly Garrett, an environmental toxicologist from Northeastern University, told Newsweek that this was akin to slowly opening a well-shaken can of soda as opposed to opening it quickly and sending the contents flying everywhere.

The railroad suggested that this process would involve "the burning of the rail cars' chemicals, which will release fumes into the air that can be deadly if inhaled. Based on current weather patterns and the expected flow of the smoke and fumes, anyone who remains in the red affected area is facing grave danger of death. Anyone who remains in the yellow impacted area is at a high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage."

Among the toxic chemicals stored in the wrecked cars were vinyl chloride, hydrogen chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, and isobutylene.

Burning vinyl chloride, as the railroad company ultimately did, turns it into hydrogen chloride and phosgene gas, the later of which was used as a weapon of mass slaughter in World War I.

Concerning the release, Silverado Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist, told WKBN, "We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open."

The Ohio National Guard, the U.S. Department of Defense, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D), ordered an immediate evacuation of the area ahead of the "controlled release."

Since the skies were intentionally darkened over the village on Feb. 6, the rivers have been crowded by dead fish. Mammals have reportedly been dying in the area. Residents are concerned, not just about the health impact now, but about the fallout years down the line.

Doubling down

WKBN reported that Shaw returned to East Palestine on Saturday to survey the impact the derailment of his company's train has had on the village and its people and to see how the "controlled release" was going.

“This has been devastating to this community,” said Shaw. “I want to make sure you understand, I am terribly sorry that this happened to the community. Norfolk Southern is fully committed to doing what’s right for this community.”

Shaw claimed that the decision to destroy the five derailed train cars and release a column of black, toxic smoke into the air above the village on Feb. 6 was the right one — a claim he reiterated on Sunday, telling the DailyMail.com with a smile that it was the "right move."

According to the Norfolk Southern CEO, the "terrifying" plume of toxic smoke resulting from the "controlled release" signaled success.

The Biden administration similarly suggested the breach and burn was a success, reported CBS News.

Not all regard the action as having been necessary or prudent.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) suggested last week in a letter addressed to Shaw that the railway may have had options available to it other than the "controlled release" it settled on.

The letter, which raised concerns "about Norfolk Southern's poor handling of this incident," castigated Shaw's company for its "unwillingness to explore or articulate alternate courses of action to their proposed vent and burn limited state and local leaders' ability to respond effectively."

Shapiro also accused Norfolk Southern of having "failed to notify state and local response agencies initially of their intention to vent and burn all five cars containing vinyl chloride, rather than just the single car Norfolk Southern personnel identified originally."

Caggiano, a hazmat specialist who previously served as a battalion chief of the fire department in Youngstown, Ohio, indicated that alternative options to the "controlled release" would have taken too long and cost the railroad too much money, reported the Daily Mail.

"If they had to put the fire out, they would still have to handle every one of those containers and its content as hazardous waste, all non-marketable, and they would have to have gotten rid of all that contamination," said Caggiano. "This way they don't have contamination anymore. ... It burned up and it spread over God knows how much."

A lawsuit filed last week claims that "Norfolk Southern discharged more cancer-causing vinyl chloride into the environment in the course of a week than all industrial emitters combined did in the course of a year."

"Instead of properly containing and cleaning up its mess, and becoming responsible for a costly cleanup effort, Norfolk Southern had a different idea: 'Set it on fire,'" said the suit, noting that Norfolk Southern "likely understood that properly containing and removing this volume [of] vinyl chloride would be incredibly expensive and time consuming."

USA Today indicated that the company is now facing at least five lawsuits as of last week, primarily alleging Norfolk Southern was negligent and careless as it pertains to the derailment. These suits are expected to later be merged into a single class-action lawsuit.

The railway is presently offering $1,000 per person to those with a 44413 zip code and in Beaver County's evacuation zone, reported WKBN.

Shaw, who owns over 20 properties across Georgia and Virginia, intimated that recipients would not be precluded from pursuing further legal action or demanding more reparations in the future.

A spokesman for the company confirmed, "Acceptance of these reimbursements and/or inconvenience compensation is not a settlement of any future claim."

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Thick smoke, flames seen as controlled release of chemicals begins at East Palestine train siteyoutu.be

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Joseph MacKinnon

Joseph MacKinnon

Joseph MacKinnon is a staff writer for Blaze News.
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