Mastriano Bill for Train-Wreck Emergency Grants Passes Pennsylvania Senate Committee

Legislation to aid Pennsylvanians affected by the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment and chemical incineration passed a state Senate panel unanimously last week. 

State Senator Doug Mastriano (R-PA-Chambersburg) authored the bill and chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee which approved it. His measure would establish the Train Derailment Emergency Grant Program to cover impacted individuals’ medical bills, income losses, small-business expenses, property-value depletions, decontamination costs and relocation expenses. The policy now awaits consideration by the full Senate. 

Sources of funding for the proposed program may include revenues collected from taxpayers, gifts from private contributors, penalties or fines paid by culpable entities and monetary damages paid to the state by such entities. Citing a desire for flexibility to meet varying degrees of need, Mastriano told colleagues his legislation does not set a limit on the grant amount an individual or small business may receive.

Eligible grantees are Pennsylvanians living or working within a 15-mile radius of the derailment site. The senator said he arrived at that geographic scope after careful study but added that his bill contains a waiver process for those outside the radius who believe they can demonstrate harm. 

“Whether this funding ultimately comes through a mechanism via this legislation or another, it is important that we establish something in short order to provide relief to the homeowners that want to leave the area and don’t have the means to do so,” Mastriano said.

During the same meeting, committee members passed a resolution written by Mastriano to recognize the environmental, health and economic consequences of the derailment and the subsequent move to burn five rail cars containing toxic vinyl chloride. The wreck happened less than a mile from the Pennsylvania border and residents of Beaver and Lawrence counties have reported numerous ill effects seemingly resulting from the pervasion of hydrogen chloride and phosgene gas through the region’s atmosphere. 

The resolution noted many residents went public describing the rashes, headaches, itchy eyes, burning lips and diarrhea they or their loved ones experienced in the wake of the wreck. It went on to recall the fright that set in as many local individuals fearfully evacuated while others discovered dead fish or livestock and observed discoloration in area waterways. 

In addition to the legislative attempt to aid affected residents, Pennsylvanians and Ohioans have filed lawsuits against the Norfolk Southern rail company for proceeding with what the corporation has called a “controlled burn” of the vinyl chloride. Governor Josh Shapiro (D), meanwhile, recently announced the commonwealth has secured $7.4 million from Norfolk Southern to remunerate state agencies for expenses pertaining to the derailment. 

Shapiro now castigates Norfolk Southern for proceeding to burn five cars containing vinyl chloride after allegedly stating it would burn only one. The governor initially supported the company’s handling of the incident, saying the incineration went “as planned” and led to “no concerning” results. 

Shapiro has faced scrutiny for other aspects of his decision-making after the derailment as well. For several weeks, Mastriano has criticized the governor’s failure to declare an emergency in early February; during remarks last week the senator mentioned an emergency declaration would have made the disbursement of funds to affected residents much easier. 

Related legislation passed by the Senate committee last week included a measure authored by State Senator Lisa Baker (R-Dallas) to require Senate confirmation of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency director. All committee Republicans backed that policy while only one of the panel’s four Democrats — Lindsey Williams (D-Pittsburgh) — voted yes. 

Democrats voiced concern about whether forcing the state’s top emergency official through a legislative vetting process could delay his or her ability to exercise timely leadership during a state emergency. In testimony, Baker responded that the governor would still be able to appoint an acting director in such instances. Similar legislation passed the prior General Assembly but then-Governor Tom Wolf (D) vetoed it. 

Lawmakers remain on the hunt for clarity regarding the chain of events that began on February 3. Pennsylvania state senators have subpoenaed Norfolk Southern Chief Executive Officer Alan Shaw and hoped to hear from him last week but Shaw’s testimony before Congress delayed his appearance in the Keystone State. Mastriano and his committee will instead hear from him on Monday, March 20 at 10 a.m. in Capitol Building East Wing Room 8E-B. 

Mastriano’s committee has issued another subpoena so legislators may see all written communications Norfolk Southern engaged in pertaining to the wreck and the subsequent vent-and-burn decision. 

– – –

Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Doug Mastriano” by Majorbuxton. CC BY-SA 4.0. Background Photo “Pennsylvania State Capitol” by Governor Tom Wolf. CC BY 2.0.


Related posts