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Governor's office in Pennsylvania makes a criminal referral in Ohio train derailment

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine greets Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro during a news conference in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 21.
Matt Freed
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine greets Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro during a news conference in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 21.

Updated February 22, 2023 at 5:08 PM ET

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said the state's acting attorney general is investigating whether criminal charges were warranted in the derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railroad train just over the state line in East Palestine, Ohio.

Shapiro blasted Norfolk Southern's "arrogance and incompetence" in an interview with Morning Edition's Leila Fadel on Wednesday, saying the railroad didn't participate in unified efforts with emergency services from Pennsylvania and Ohio after the derailment.

"We made a criminal referral to the office of attorney general. They'll determine whether or not there was criminal activity," Shapiro said. "What I know is that Norfolk Southern is governed every day, not by caring about the communities that they send their trains through, but by corporate greed."

Asked by NPR about the nature of possible charges, acting Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry said her office "will act quickly to investigate this incident, gather the facts, and then evaluate the evidence to make a determination under Pennsylvania law."

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would take control of the cleanup of the derailment that released hazardous chemicals into the environment.

In statement to NPR on Tuesday, Norfolk Southern said it has already been paying for the cleanup and will continue to do so.

"We recognize that we have a responsibility, and we have committed to doing what's right for the residents of East Palestine," the railroad said. "We are committed to thoroughly and safely cleaning the site, and we are reimbursing residents for the disruption this has caused in their lives."

Shapiro said tests of municipal water supplies and wells haven't shown any "concerning readings" of toxins and will continue to test "for months and months and months, if not years" to ensure that water is safe for residents.

About three dozen Norfolk Southern freight cars derailed near East Palestine, a town of roughly 4,800. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have indicated that the derailment was likely caused by a wheel bearing failure; a preliminary report is expected next week.

In an interview with PBS NewsHour on Tuesday, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said he didn't want to speculate on a cause of the derailment but that the railroad is committed to ensuring the safety of the community.

"Yes, we're going to see this thing through. That's my commitment to the community of East Palestine," he said.

"We're going to invest in the environmental cleanup. We have made a lot of progress. We have got air monitoring, water monitoring. We're coordinating with the Ohio EPA. And we're going to invest in this community for the long haul and help this community recover and help this community thrive."

But Shapiro told NPR on Wednesday that "I don't believe for a second Norfolk Southern would do this on their own," if it weren't forced by the federal government.

The railroad has "given the middle finger to the good people of Pennsylvania and Ohio by failing to show up at community meetings, by really insulting the community with a lackluster investment in their recovery."

"And I'm frankly sick and tired of the way their CEO has acted like a king, as opposed to someone who's contrite and willing to work with the community to get it back up on its feet," the governor said.

"This is the same company that has sadly and successfully lobbied Congress over multiple years to do away with safety measures that would cost them a few bucks but might keep the community safer."

"They line themselves up with lawyers and lobbyists to escape scrutiny and I'm sick and tired of it."

Shapiro said Congress needs to act to make railroads safer.

"They need to put real teeth into some of these laws involving the safety of our railways. They need to force Norfolk Southern and the other railroad companies to invest real money in their braking systems and the security and safety of their trains."

He advocated: "Lowering the bar, if you will, what is a high-hazards train, which would then require those rail companies to notify states like mine when they pass through so our emergency personnel can be on alert and be prepared in the event that there is a disaster."

Shapiro, a Democrat, said he and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, have discussed appearing before Congress to inform them of the steps they need to take to make railroads safer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Helton
[Copyright 2024 NPR]