HARRISBURG – Waterways and wetlands in McKean and Cameron counties that were damaged in a June 2006 lye spill will benefit from a landmark settlement between the commonwealth, Norfolk Southern Corp. and Norfolk Southern Railway Company.
“We negotiated long and hard to reach this point, keeping in mind the environmental and economic injuries that this region suffered as a result of the spill,” DEP Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty said in announcing the agreement. “This settlement will help heal the ecosystem and provide the needed resources for nearby communities.”
A large part of the $7.35 million settlement—approximately $6.76 million—will go to community organizations or be used by the commonwealth to support environmental restoration work and fund other important community improvement projects. The projects will help re-establish the natural resources of Cameron, Clearfield, Elk, McKean and Potter counties so residents can again enjoy the recreational and sporting opportunities that were available before the spill.
Under the agreement, DEP’s nearly $3.2 million share will go directly to the Headwaters Resource Conservation and Development Council Inc. to support projects in the Sinnemahoning Portage Creek Watershed, and the Driftwood Branch of the Sinnemahoning Creek Watershed.
Within the council, a stakeholders committee consisting of local public representatives, county officials and state agency delegates will evaluate potential environmental projects for future funding. The stakeholder committee will meet in January to finish identifying the projects that may qualify for endowment support.
Norfolk Southern will pay an additional $500,000 to DEP to cover the costs of responding to the June 30, 2006, train derailment that released 42,000 gallons of lye, which is also known as liquid sodium hydroxide or caustic soda. DEP continues to address the consequences of the spill.
The agreement also provides $3.68 million to the Fish and Boat Commission.
The payments will resolve Norfolk Southern’s civil liability at the site for DEP, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Each state agency is a signatory to the settlement.
The civil liability settlement is separate from the criminal charges filed against Norfolk Southern and the derailed train’s conductor by the McKean County district attorney and the Pennsylvania attorney general.
DEP will submit a public notice regarding the universal civil settlement for publication in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. Once published, a 60-day public comment period will follow and then DEP will prepare a response document.
Once the response document is prepared, the final agreement will be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, beginning a 30-day period for appeals. The final settlement agreement will go into effect when the appeal period expires or, if an appeal is filed, when the appeal is resolved.
The proposed settlement agreement is available for review at the DEP Northwest Regional Office, 230 Chestnut St., Meadville, and at the Cameron County Conservation District Office, 20 East Fifth St., Room 105, Emporium.
Written comments can be submitted to Mr. Ricardo F. Gilson, regional manager, Department of Environmental Protection, Water Management, 230 Chestnut St., Meadville, PA 16335. Gilson can be reached at 814-332-6942 for additional information. TDD users may contact DEP through the Pennsylvania Relay Service at 800-645-5984.
Norfolk Southern has completed cleanup at the site but it is obligated to continue monitoring the restoration efforts under the terms of a May 2007 agreement. The railroad company is to submit reports to DEP twice a year for the first two years after construction and annually for the next three years.
The first report is due within 60 days of an April 2008 site inspection, with the final report due within 60 days of a September 2013 inspection.
The June 2006 spill occurred near Gardeau, Norwich Township, McKean County, and wiped out fish and aquatic life in Big Fill Hollow and an 11-mile segment of Sinnemahoning-Portage Creek, which is designated as an exceptional value and wild trout stream. It also affected the fisheries in the Driftwood Branch of Sinnemahoning Creek.
The effects of the spill were observed as far as 30 miles downstream from the derailment site, with much of the impact in Cameron County.
Staff from DEP’s northwest regional office conducted fish surveys on the Sinnemahoning-Portage Creek in early October and found that, except for trout, fish populations have substantially rebounded below the spill site.
The affected area is in the center of Pennsylvania Wilds—a portion of north central Pennsylvania renowned for its spectacular scenery and wildlife.