MEADVILLE — The Department of Environmental Protection is seeking at least $8.89 million in penalties from Norfolk Southern for the damage caused by a 31-car train derailment June 30 in McKean County that spilled 42,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide.
The spill 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 in the Driftwood Branch of Sinnemahoning Creek.
“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.
In the first of two actions, DEP today filed a complaint with the Environmental Hearing Board citing the company for violations of the state’s Clean Streams Law and requesting $5.41 million for discharges into Big Fill Run, Sinnemahoning-Portage Creek, the Driftwood Branch of Sinnemahoning Creek, Sinnemahoning Creek and associated wetlands.
That penalty covers discharges that occurred between the date of the accident and the EHB filing today. The department is seeking an ongoing civil penalty of $46,420 a day for discharges that continue past Oct. 19.
In the second action, DEP also assessed a $3.48 million civil penalty for violations of the state’s Solid Waste Management Act and Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act for the unpermitted disposal of wastes and the release of hazardous substances related to the accident.
“The discharges that devastated and continue to affect this environmentally-pristine area violate a number of state laws and regulations,” McGinty said. “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.”
The accident occurred near the McKean County village of Gardeau, spilling sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda or lye, into Big Fill Run and the Sinnemahoning-Portage Creek, damaging those waterways and severely affecting the Driftwood Branch. The effects of the spill were observed as much as 30 miles downstream from the derailment site.
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.
On Sept. 22, McGinty visited Emporium, Cameron County, and issued an order to Norfolk Southern, setting legally binding milestones and objectives to ensure the company cleans up the ground contamination and fully restores the area to pre-spill conditions. The area is the center of Pennsylvania Wilds, encompassing the north central portion of the state renowned for its spectacular scenery and wildlife.
McGinty also announced an enhanced stakeholder process to involve area residents and businesses in designing regional restoration projects to be funded by civil penalties levied against the company as the result of the spill. A single point of contact also has been established at DEP to keep residents up to date on cleanup activities.
The first step in that process was a Sept. 27 public meeting that DEP hosted in Emporium to provide the latest information about activities at the derailment site and to hear from residents who live and recreate in the area.
DEP is continuing work with the conservation district and local officials to identify members to participate in the stakeholder group. That group will work with the department, other agencies and the public through regular meetings to advance restoration projects.
The department has established a Web site that includes a brief summary and answers to frequently asked questions about the derailment and its aftermath. There is a link to DEP news releases, so when new information becomes available residents have immediate access.
That information is available at www.depweb.state.pa.us. Click on “Northwest” or “Northcentral” on the left side of the page, then “Community Involvement,” then “Norfolk Southern Train Derailment.”
In addition, DEP has established a public file repository, which includes water sample results, at the Cameron County Conservation District Office in Room 105 of the courthouse in Emporium. Residents should contact Conservation District Manager Jan Hampton at 814-486-9353 or email@example.com to arrange a file review.