State seeking $9M penalty from railroad for toxic spill

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The state is seeking almost $9 million in penalties from Norfolk Southern railroad for environmental damage caused by a 31-car train derailment June 30 in McKean County that spilled toxic chemicals and wiped out fish and aquatic life in several top-quality trout streams.

The Department of Environmental Protection is also seeking additional daily penalties of $46,420 for continuing chemical discharges into the creek from contaminated soil at nine separate sites.

Rudy Husband, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, said the company will appeal the penalties levied yesterday and the DEP's September 22 order requiring the company to fully restore Sinnemahoning-Portage Creek and clean up ground contaminated by the toxic chemical spill.

The derailment, which occurred when the freight train was traveling down a steep grade at more than 50 miles over the speed limit for that section of track, wiped out fish and aquatic life in Big Fill Run at the accident site and along a 7.5-mile segment of Sinnemahoning-Portage Creek. It also affected the aquatic environment and killed a large number of fish in 10 miles of the Driftwood Branch of Sinnemahoning Creek.

The accident occurred near the McKean County village of Gardeau, spilling 42,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda or lye, and killing fish and aquatic life 30 miles downstream from the derailment site.

"The waterways, wetlands and soil all paid a price when that speeding train derailed and the tank cars split open," DEP Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty said yesterday.

The penalties assessed today were for alleged violations of the state's Clean Streams Law and the Solid Waste management Act and Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act. The later violations are for the unpermitted disposal of wastes and the release of hazardous substances related to the accident.

"These enforcement actions and fines against Norfolk Southern seek to remedy the breach of laws that has created environmental and economic havoc in McKean and Cameron counties," Ms. McGinty said.

An unknown amount of the 42,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide also soaked into the ground in and around the derailment site. This residual material must be addressed and cleaned up to ensure a complete recovery of Sinnemahoning-Portage Creek, which is designated as an exceptional value and wild trout stream.

The area is the center of Pennsylvania Wilds, encompassing the north central portion of the state renowned for its spectacular scenery and wildlife.

Although alkalinity levels have returned to normal in the creek due to ongoing treatment by the railroad, it will be years before the fish population returns to pre-derailment levels.

Kurt Knaus, a DEP spokesman, said the railroad has continued to work on the derailment site to assess the ground contamination. It must submit an expanded environmental assessment of the ground and water damage to the DEP on Nov. 15. It must submit a clean up plan 45 days later.


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983


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